Bad Advertising

Bad Advertising – Zappos

In my occasional Bad Advertising series here on, I write about advertising and marketing that strikes me as misguided, wasteful, or just plain wrong. In the past, I’ve railed against a local shopping mall store which totally mis-spent its advertising. That beauty shop, which had advertising posted in the men’s room at the mall, […]

In my occasional Bad Advertising series here on, I write about advertising and marketing that strikes me as misguided, wasteful, or just plain wrong.

In the past, I’ve railed against a local shopping mall store which totally mis-spent its advertising. That beauty shop, which had advertising posted in the men’s room at the mall, among other places, is now gone.

I’ve written about Ford’s "Drive One" campaign — not because of the slogan, but because they are committed to the campaign for 5 years because they wouldn’t be able to measure results any quicker. Ford, along with the other big US Automakers, is now begging Washington for a bailout.

Today’s message is not about a company that’s destined to fail…it’s about a company that is doing very well, but just missing a valuable opportunity to sell into a very active, and mostly affluent crowd.

I recently flew to Malaysia and Singapore to speak at Simon Leung and Stuart Tan’s "The Smart Seminar" events. Asia was an amazing experience — and a place I never thought I’d have occasion to visit.

At Los Angeles International Airport, I was in line at the security checkpoint when I saw the trays where you have to unload all of your personal belongings — wallet, keys, cell phone, laptop, coat, shoes…and once again saw something that I’ve always thought was a missed opportunity.

Take a look at the photo.

Zappos tray at airportIt happens to be from a prior trip through LAX, but is nearly the same as what I saw a few weeks ago. It’s the bottom of the tray, and there’s a Zappos ad there. Zappos is the internet’s largest shoe store. They have 1300 employees, and in 2007 they sold over $840 million of merchandise. This year, they’ll break a billion.

That’s a lot of shoes.

And I’m sure they’ve paid a LOT of money on the advertising in these trays all over the country.

So why am I picking on Zappos?

It goes back to my core belief that "Knowing your Customer" is the single most important part of marketing — on the Internet or off. In a moment, I’m going to put your into the head of the person who, like me, was at the airport, and just picked up one of these bins.

But first, a little history.

September 11, 2001 was a horrible day in History. We all know why. Three months later, on December 22, a man named Richard Reid got on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami with plastic explosives in his shoes. He was caught by a flight attendant trying to light the fuse. Luckily, he failed.

And since then, almost all air travelers — and in particular those in the USA — have had to remove their shoes so they can be X-rayed prior to boarding a commercial airplane.

So now imagine for a moment that you’re in line at your local commercial airport, about to go through Security. You take off your shoes, then pick up a bin and see the Zappos ad.

Okay, "Put a little Zappos in your day." Cute slogan, maybe. But very forgettable. And it’s all about THEM, and not ME.

As a traveler, what do YOU care about, at this very moment?

Well, it’s odd, but before they leave for the airport, most people still don’t think about this hassle of taking their shoes off and having to put them back on again, and so they show up wearing sneakers or boots or dress shoes or other shoes with laces. Or maybe metal inside. Or some kind of liquid or gel.

Unknown items built into your shoes can get you pulled aside. Laces are a pain to tie and untie, and delay your journey through the TSA checkpoint.

So what does "Put a little Zappos in your day" say to you, as a traveler? What benefit do YOU get from this ad? What benefit does Zappos get from this ad?

NOTHING, except "Zappos sells shoes."

But to me, the message is "missed opportunity" because what Zappos should be doing here is tapping into the conversation that is going on in the traveler’s mind at this very moment.

"I wish I didn’t have to do this."
"I shoulda worn shoes without laces."
"Damn, this is a PAIN in the ass!"

And, even worse, if someone gets pulled aside for a special questioning because there is metal or something else built into their shoes that arouses the curiosity of the TSA…

"Uh Oh!"

What Zappos should have done is to promote their selection of ‘airport-safe shoes’ — shoes designed to pass through airport security without a problem. Even better, would be to advertise a line of lace-less airport-safe shoes to speed you through security.

There’s actually a page on the Zappos website that talks about Airport-safe shoes…but it’s hard to find. As of this writing, there’s not even link on the Zappos home page to this page, and it doesn’t come up first…or even on the first page…if you search Google for "zappos airport safe shoes."

Here’s the point.

One Hundred Percent of the people who see these ads need to pass through airport security, yet Zappos totally forgets that fact, and simply tries to sell their shoes in this situation as in any other.

"Buy my shoes."
"Put a little Zappos in your day."

So what’s the point of all this? Well, my question to you is…

  • Do you get into the head of your customer better than Zappos does theirs?
  • Do you actually know what your customer is thinking when he or she sees your ad?
  • Does your marketing take into account your customer’s situation and state of mind?

My guess is that you’ve got less disposable income than Zappos does. So if the answer to any of these questions is "No," I’d like to suggest that you FIX this problem NOW.

Your business depends on it — especially as we roll into this challenging holiday season.

What do YOU think? Leave your comment below.

To your Success,

–Mark Widawer

…One more thing…If you know you need help to better know your customer, I’ve got a resource that can help you know your customer better by getting deep inside his or her head. Go now to to figure out what REALLY makes your customers buy.

33 replies on “Bad Advertising – Zappos”


I am not familiar with Zappos. I looked at the picture above a number of times and if I was standing in the security line, it would not mean anything to me.

I had a pair of shoes with a mettle shank that for some reason looked odd to the xray operator, and would get a double check. I stopped wearing them when I traveled.

But as you said above, if the Zappos ad talked about airport shoes, now that would get my attention, even for a moment.

John Deck

What a great concept Mark…

You’re an excellent observer of the seemingly obvious (to you) that to most people would go unnoticed…

Perhaps you could contact Zappo’s and say to them…

“Hey – guys – I’ve got an idea that might make you $10m more sales this christmas…”

Thanks again!


This is a great example of getting into the customer’s head and figuring a way to provide a service or product that actually serves them in a valuable way. In this case speeding them through the indignity of those rude crude and ineffective airport “security checks”. I like your research on the effectiveness of the website too. Do you suppose Zappos might try that someday?

Dale Andersons last blog post..Need a little extra money for Christmas?

mark, i have to disagree with you. this is branding pure and simple, also a clever and unique way to associate shoes with a shoe retailer.

YOU might think its a hassle or a problem having to remove your shoe, but that is not everyone.

Most people could care less and even in that case, the idle time you spend waiting in line gives plenty of opprotunity to strike up chit chat about this unqique advertising to the guy next to you in line.

now you have a viral situation and a situation where the positioning of the ad in itself will be memorable enough that as you pass the TSA checkpoint the person might google zappos on his PDA while waiting for his flight.

airport advertising is one of the best viral vehicles available.

The name Zappos doesn’t mean a thing to me, so wouldn’t make me think of shoes – airport-safe or otherwise.

That ad is kind of like the email I got the other day. It simply said “I highly endorse this” and than gave a link.

The difference is, Zappos wasted a bundle of money and the person who emailed me just wasted his time.


Great post and such an important point about understanding where the prospect is at when they see your message. The old Robert Collier “Entering the conversation…” point.

On a recent trip to Brisbane I noted a slightly better use of the trays for laptop PCs. It was from Blackberry and their tagline was “Did you really need to bring your laptop this trip?”

Thanks again for the post.

Kevin Francis

Kevin Franciss last blog post..How A Top Copywriter Views Research…

Hi Mark,

Great post with great observations and insights.

This really is a huge and unique marketing opportunity Zappos could jump all over.

Have you sent this post to the CEo of Zappos?
If not, I’d be glad to forward it to him.
I think he’d take it seriously.

Take care,


I always wear my hiking boots on planes for the following reasons:

1) I usually want them when I get to my destination (I like walking) and baggage restrictions ensure that their weight and bulk is best transported on my feet;

2) I find them comfortable to sit in;

3) In the very unlikely event of a crash then they are the footwear most likely to get me off the plane in safety (natural leather and sturdy).

As to: “Laces are a pain to tie and untie, and delay your journey through the TSA checkpoint.” I know that I’m going to be wasting hours sitting around in the airport lounge anyway, generally more if I need to make a connecting flight, so what does it matter if I use 60 seconds of that enforced wasted time removing and retying my boots???

I take your point on the advertising message, Mark, but there’s no earthly way I’m going to waste money on a different pair of shoes for the rare occasions that I fly (I hate the whole cattle experience). As such, Zappos’ entire campaign is entirely wasted on me anyway, regardless of whether they follow your advice or not.

Hey Mark,

I appreciate this article and I think you are right on! However, as I read it and know that what you are saying is true, I am overwhelmed with the knowledge that I am completely stretched for time at work.

I am a marketing director for a major photo lab and I can tell you that there just never seems to be enough hours in the day to think these things through. I love what you are saying and I KNOW we could get further into our client’s heads — if I could just find the time. Dang it!

Hey, I just bought you a cup of coffee, That was fun…and well worth it!

That is a great idea, I thought about doing the same thing with Southwest Airlines when they hand out the boarding passes, the customer have those pass for about 1 hour. I even had a better Idea for Zappo, They can use book marks on one side of the book mark is the information the flight attendent gives out with what to do if the airplane crashes, seat belt, mask, seat cushion for floating devices. Zappo, could give a free report out on the other side. People will have to go website to get the free report. They could also make it a coupon!

I didn’t know, and still wouldn’t know by the advertising what Zappos were either. I hate to think what these people spent to do that. I try to never take it for granite people just “know” what I’m selling. Thanks for the obviously “blatant” example of wasting good advertising money.

I think your remarks are so on target. I will be paying more attention to this. Thank You Thank You. When I started the above website I thought of it as a book on the coffee table that one would go to look at for information and what reason they would want to come to the town. I’m a individual who built this and offer advertising to the local merchants for $199. a year with my building the page if they don’t have one, and back then no one had one, it has never made me money but, hopefully having the name of a town it could. I get about 1200 visitors a day now. No outside advertising – just because it is the name of the town and have been at it so long. Thanks again for the great imput that I will use on my other websites that I’m trying to make. Evey

Mark, you (subliminally) suggest that we should ALWAYS be on the lookout for good marketing hints — good advice. I’ve gotten very good over the years at looking at local stores and picking out which ones aren’t going to be there soon. It’s sad to watch it happen. My wife chides me for finding a manager and encouraging or discouraging some employee or detail about their business, but I know that no one can see everything from every angle.
Your comments help keep us all at the top of our game. Thanks, again.

Great example of why our marketing message should be very targeted. Thanks for a great reminder.

I have always believed that your message should connect with your target market emotionally.

You make a good point. Target marketing is always the best marketing.

I think they should have negotiated to provided a
Pad of 20% off Coupons for their airport safe shoes(featured) or any other product they offer, right at the front of the line as you go through the security…
That way the potential client can take it with them and in many cases sit on the plane, log on
and order right then..while the iron is HOT!

How ’bout them apples! 🙂

You are doing the same thing I do. Your brain is always on looking at what advertisers do or don’t do and how totally stupid some of them can be.

Of course all this drives my wife crazy as she just wants to get back to watching the TV program instead of listening to my advertising lessons.

I believe there are SOOOOoooo many lessons like this all around us.

Thanks for sharing yours with us.


Great observation Mark

Thanks for sharing this. I think there should be a massive poster in every Executive’s office saying ‘If we meet and continue to meet the Customers needs, the money will flow and continue to flow.’


Excellent example, Mark. When I first read “airport safe” I thought more along the lines of safety or security. Another way to position it would be “airport easy” or “airport fast” shoes to give even more benefit to the customer. No one likes standing in line forever and most people don’t like to be the slowpoke holding up everyone else. 🙂

Mark – your head by generating ideas are ALWAYS terrific – so creative. I’ve been following you for your many kinds of advise. Thank you!
Now, Me? Teacher, translator, author successful in all these areas, except…I took away my books
from the editorial because they were not selling me ANYTHING but yes, with the “right customer” I’ve sold out. HELP!!! My customers are school districs, teachers, students, bilingual people.
I offer them in one hundred letters my services but NOBODY ANSWERS. If they SEE my book(s) they buy it right away. I need to sell 800 left over books. Advise? Is my website OK? Traffic? What?
I appreciate anything you say to set me straight!
Regards, Inés

Like John, I forgot that Zappos was a shoe store when I first saw the ad. They totally lost me with the ad. No mention of shoes. No pictures of shoes.

I travel enough that I have “flying shoes”. They’re slip-ons, but have vibram soles for any weather I end up encountering on the other end of the flight. If Zappos had a simple URL to find such shoes, I’d be there in a heartbeat… like

But their current tray ad is a total miss; agreed.

Nathan Andersons last blog post..The Elevision Network

Hi Mark,

Excellent observation!

For a company that do so much business, Zappos seem to be leaving a lot of money on the table. Maybe you should become their advertising consultant.

The word Zappos doesn’t ring a bell to me, so if I had seen it at the airport, or elsewhere I wouldn’t know what it was, unless it made mention of its offer.

There might be many other companies suffering from the same “off message” advertising, as this is a common flaw among new business owners. This is why tracking and testing are so important to your marketing efforts.

It is sad to see so many new opportunity seekers get on the internet, jump from one program to another, without learning the basic concepts of marketing and advertising.

Business, especially online is about “finding a need and providing a solution for that need”. As entrepreneurs, we have to look at our advertising in the eyes of our prospects, which can sometimes be a daunting task, as people are different.

As small business owners, many of us do not have a large advertising budget, so we should endeavor to get maximum leverage out of our advertising dollar.

These are skills that can be learned over time; however, those who do not have a lot of time should get the right training to deal with this issue.

Based on Mark’s astute sense of observation and analytical prowess, much can be achieved by anyone who plug into his trainings and is willing to learn the skills necessary.

Once again thanks for your leadership Mark!


Hi Mark,
Love your work and think you are a sincere and bonofide genius. I appreciate the sincere part the most. But I think the Zappos ad is a form of hi-jacking into people’s consciousness. When I saw the ad I immediately thought of the Mentos type ad campaigns and all of the money Mentos has spent on creating that identity in the market. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the customer profile between airline travelers (international, upscale, hip, trend setting, etc)and Zappos customers is similar if not the same. If they (Zappos) could create a similar relationship with travelers who aren’t let their customers by using an off the wall approach that wasn’t really about selling anything (Wink-wink) or even supplant the Zappos brand into that Mentos-type “meme” in people’s heads and gain the identifications and “personalities” of that brand type then the shoes are almost irrelevant. They’ll achieve a relationship with the customer much faster by hi-jacking the pleasant identity of Mentos-like personality then just trying to stress a particular product or benefit. You might not sell as many shoes today but developing a way for the customer to trust and like you and even think you’re one of them faster will sell a lot more shoes over time. Just a thought.

Very thought-provoking post. I’m going to reblog it on my blog this week. I have to say I wouldn’t buy Zappos airport shoes,I tend to wear my keds that don’t have laces and just slip off. The times I wear lace-ups it doesn’t take as long to re-do them as it does waiting in line to go through customs. Besides I don’t want an extra pair of shoes to carry. But I think advertising their airport shoes could appeal to some travellers – and they are missing an opp to be more targeted. Sadly Brands seem only to rely on recognition… not customer needs or getting into their heads.

Nicky Jamesons last blog post..Forget Branding – Build Relationships

Yes, they used to have CLEVER, IRREVERENT ads in those airport bins. Such as “geez your shoes kind of stink? do you need a new pair?” Very snarky and cute. This picture matches those ridiculous television commercials they have been running. Put a little Zappos in Your Day with blue streaks and a UPS driver. HUH? If you don’t know who Zappos is you won’t from this branding campaign and if you do it does nothing to remind you that they are all about customer service. Pathetic.

Zappos Email Sign Up…

So there have been a few email posts about Zappos email and advertising strategies lately over at The Email Wars, The Email Experience Blog and Traffic and Conversion Blog and thought I’d chime in as well. Believe it or not, to my knowledge I have n…

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