Last Saturday, I met up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. When I told him I worked in marketing now, he raised an eyebrow. It’s a reaction I’m getting used to. But is it justified?
The trouble is (and I was guilty of this once upon a time) that many people conflate marketing with advertising. That is to say, when I say marketing, they think “false advertising.” And since advertising is a significant part of marketing, we’re all getting tarred with the same brush. We all have our favorite ads, but on the whole, there’s a perception that ads are annoying, dishonest, and offensive.
Ads are annoying because they interrupt us, which is why more and more consumers are blocking them. They interrupt the game, the film, and our social media use. They fill our inboxes, voicemail, and even the landscape—so much so that in 2007 the mayor of São Paulo, Brazil’s and South America’s largest city, implemented the Clean City Law, effectively banning billboards and oversized storefront ads in an effort to fight “visual pollution.”
Closer to home, a free mobile app called NOAD “digitally replaces [New York] subway platform advertising with art.”
Billboards have always been unpopular. “Man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard,” wrote David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising. “When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon.”
This is a sentiment echoed by none other than Banksy in his famous letter on advertising: “[Advertisers] have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”
In a Gallup poll from 2016, only 11 percent of responders rated the honesty and ethical standards of advertising practitioners as above average—in other words, less trustworthy than senators, bankers, and lawyers. This is down to the prevalence of false advertising.
Shows like Mad Men confirm consumers’ distrust. Fans of the show will remember the Lucky Strike “It’s Toasted” pitch.
You might even smile as you remember the genius simplicity of the pitch. But let’s not forget that the product in question, the cigarette, is responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million Americans every year. Cigarettes may be an extreme example of false advertising, but scandals abound in other industries.
Dishonest ads are not only bad for consumers, they also distort markets. According to rational choice theory—a core assumption of neoclassical economics—markets are efficient because individuals make rational, prudent choices, attempting to maximize advantage and minimize losses. If this assumption were true, an ad would be a description of the characteristics of the product or service, much like you’d find in consumer reports.
Now take a look at this cigarette ad.
Is the purpose of this ad to inform consumers about the characteristics of the product so that they can make rational choices?
Quite the opposite. As Noam Chomsky says, ads seek “to create uninformed consumers, who make irrational choices” [my emphasis]. Why else would consumers pay through the nose for deadly cigarettes, homeopathy products, or Sea-Monkeys—remember those? (Though, to be fair, Sea-Monkeys do look pretty cool).
Not all ads are offensive, but a lot of them are. In fact, it was difficult for me to choose one type to focus on since there are so many that push the envelope of marketing ethics. There are ads that try to piggyback on important issues and end up trivializing them, like that Pepsi ad which was so bad it “united the Internet.” There have also been a slew of ads in the fashion industry which appear to normalize rape. PETA have had several controversial ads—“Holocaust on a Plate,” among others.
And don’t say “Well, that was in China so that’s OK.” It’s not OK. Besides, what’s going on in this PlayStation ad?
Image attribution: Trent Bigelow
Many people don’t like ads because, as the examples show, too many of them are annoying, dishonest, and offensive, and for those reasons they don’t like us marketers—whether or not we’re working in ads (and if we are, whether or not our ads are ethical).
But don’t worry, my dear marketers. There is good news.
The good news is that we’re going to make “ad men” sit through marketing ethics classes—just kidding. The fact is, interrupt advertising is not working. As marketing podcaster Louis Grenier says, “Mass advertising—what the general public hates the most about marketing—is slowly disappearing.” Don’t take his word for it: More than half a billion devices are now blocking ads on the web.
So what’s going to replace interrupt advertising? This is what content marketing is all about. According to Tom Gerace, co-author of Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, brands who move away from interrupt advertising have a shot at regaining consumer trust (and improving the reputation of marketers). We can do this by building genuine connections with customers. That’s right. Instead of annoying them every few minutes with offensive half-truths, we can commit to the truth and “talk to customers in a way that acknowledges the real world in which they live.”
And the best way to do that is to learn to tell real brand stories.
Want to learn more about brand storytelling? Attend Storynomics with Robert McKee and Tom Gerace.
Featured image attribution: amira_a