There are a lot of people running around right now with utopian theories of advertising that suggest it’s most effective when it doesn’t ask consumers to do anything.These theories are especially prominent in social media circles.
In reality, this is really just the further development of creative trends that started in the 1980s – trends that outlived the big hair. The result of those trends is an advertising business in 2011 that is pretty cynical. Many agency execs bring in large salaries while resenting anything so low brow as the idea their work needs to “sell”. The idea of asking a consumer to purchase a product seems crass (so it doesn’t happen). And there seems to be, among agency execs, a serious dis-like of the real business purpose of “advertising” (which you can detect by what’s omitted from their discussion – like any understanding of business).
What they’re really saying is “advertising is most effective when it’s least effective.” Right. (Oops. I forgot that every advertising sin is excused by the agency with the idea that it will at least build brand. And when will that brand turn into cash for the company? It has to at some point.)
Sadly, this trend’s added influence due to new media is quite dangerous. Because highly effective advertising is fundamentally very human and is fundamentally quite valuable to our social fabric.
Consumerism is as old as mankind itself. In fact, consumerism started when the first hunters found they could shop for rock types and find rocks that were more effective. Or when one animal skin was preferred over another for any number of reasons. I think brand also shows up quite early – like when weapon makers repetitively selected specific types of rock (e.g. flint) because they knew it made better weapons. In other words: exercising choice for the things that support us and surround us is a fundamental human activity.
Advertising helps consumers. Through advertising, they find products that enliven and enrich their lives – products they wouldn’t otherwise know about. For bigger decisions, advertising can help consumers choose between brands – more quickly and with more confidence than they could otherwise. For smaller decisions, brand established through advertising reduces their shopping challenge. Consider. A typical trip to the grocery store might involve looking at 500 items to choose 100. Using brand, we reduce those choices dramatically and make our lives more manageable.
Advertising creates jobs. We rely on the consumer economy to drive jobs. But if consumers don’t know a product exists, don’t know what advantages it brings them, or don’t know the ways it out-performs the competition, then they aren’t likely to buy that product. So strong advertising campaigns create strong companies – which means jobs at all levels of the company, jobs at retail, and jobs in all the suppliers who help manufacture the products.
Advertising creates economic stability. When companies have a potent method for driving their sales engine, then those companies become more stable. And stable companies create stable economies. Yes, technology enthusiasts spend a lot of time today preaching something like “chaos is good”. I disagree. Chaos happens. Out of chaos, good can come. But, economically we need long periods of stability while brief episodes of chaos reveal new things and keep us from becoming complacent. Advertising is critical to creating that stability.
Advertising lifts marketing out of the nasty, ugly world of the Dollar Store. Consider the Dollar Store. Without advertising, all retail would decay to the level of the dollar store – where every brand & product is manufactured solely to reduce cost. Is that what consumers want? Not at all. Is that what manufacturers want? Not at all. Advertising is one of the key economic factors that keep companies from ending up in the sinkhole of discounts.
What stands in the way of getting these benefits? Mostly, the advertising business. Let me mention a couple of ways the ad business is its own worst enemy.
First, consider the issue of “consumer interruption”. Ad agencies make a big deal about the idea that advertising interrupts consumers – then tell us they just care about consumers. That’s funny. Because the facts suggest that consumers don’t really care passionately about this topic. Ad effectiveness has increased in TV since DVR’s appeared (so obviously they’re not “skipping all ads”). And while newspapers are struggling to get ad dollars, that’s not because readers are revolting against advertising – they’re shifting to get similar content for free over the internet. And print is in a similar situation.
So why does the advertising biz talk so much about interruptions? Because it pays to. Truth is that ad agencies stand to make millions from offering dramatic changes in advertising – whether consumers want them or not (remember that agencies aren’t usually held to a sales goal anyway so what does it matter?). And new media entrepreneurs and venture investors stand to make billions if these agencies can convince clients to abandon old media and put their money in new.
Let’s look at another issue. For fun sometime, hang around an agency creative meeting then point to an idea and say “but that won’t sell anything”. Watch the fireworks as the creative team insists that selling isn’t their job and they refuse to work on any campaign where sales are measured.
Truth is that the ad business has become exceptionally skilled at convincing clients not to expect results from their work. In fact, as J-schools, then art schools & portfolio schools, and, now, agency schools have come to dominate advertising training, advertising has turned from commercial endeavor into a curated art exhibit. As a result, meaningful consumer messages have become nearly non-existent. That bugs consumers. If they are asked to put up with advertising, they’d rather have the ads be useful.
The Problem Isn’t Advertising Interruption, But Advertising That Delivers No Meaning. What advertisers need to focus on is useful consumer meaning: Why should a consumer buy this product? What is exciting, but hidden? What does it bring to a consumer life? What context shows the product value? What makes it better than the competition? What important truth wouldn’t someone learn at the store?
Why these kinds of truth? Because when you deliver meaning well you also deliver the full range of advertising’s human value.
Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved
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