Returning to the ABC's of advertising

John Hegarty discusses how agencies must change their ways over at the Media Guardian (free reg req). His article this week discusses the role of advertising in the marketing of junk foods and issue of obesity which the UK government has recently jumped on. He claims that it's wrong to blame the advertising - instead it should be placed with the manufacturers. I think it should also be placed on consumers as well- since no one is forcing them to purchase or eat foods that are bad for them in mass quantities.

We shouldn't be surprised that our industry will be in the front line when blame is being apportioned. Throughout history, the messenger has always paid a high price. But in this case, can the messenger also bear some of the guilt? Possibly, so much advertising is so boring, unrewarding, unwelcomed and clichéd, it so easily becomes the scapegoat. We always have to bear in mind that nobody asks us to interrupt them. We impose ourselves on people. This carries with it a responsibility. A responsibility to communicate in a way that not only enhances our message, but also the consumer's experience. Just as companies have to now look beyond the coredelivery of their product to see how it impacts on a broader, more social scale.

We have to see our communication as part of a bigger picture. We constantly talk about advertising moving from the era of interruption to one of engagement, but it seems to me that very few marketers take that thought on board. Instead, there are knowing nods when it's voiced and then actions that go in the opposite direction.

His points are right on. And I can't understand why marketers do not get this. It seems logical to me. Turning away from this concept is going to be detrimental to brands that do no follow. Especially with products like TiVo and consumers being more savvy about messages they tune into and which ones they block out- it is imparitive that we bring engaging and relevant messages to the public- rather than just boring, cliche crap that no one connects with except maybe the CEO.

But, is engaging vs. interrupting advertising something new? Did people consider Burma Shave ads an interruption? Or did they find them so engaging that there was a following for the ad campaign as well as people who, for the fun of it, tried their own hand at writing similar ads? Similar fan followings for Nike, Apple, and Guinness advertising have prevailed as well. So, is it really a new era, or just a return to the basics of advertising?

Perhaps it's just me, but it seems like there have been a lot of "no duh" revelations like this recently in the world of advertising - Sex no longer sells, Budget constranints often lead to bad advertising choices, and Scott Donaton's recent article "Adjusting to the reality of a consumer-controled market" which discusses the fact that marketers are starting to realize that the power is in the hands of the consumers. All of these "breaking news" type revelations should be basic ad principles applied to every brief, ad and media plan that we create. They are not new. They are not "fads". They are fundamental foundations of good advertising.

So in honor of these basic ad principles- here are some logical rules for what not to do:

- Don't be boring and bland. How do you catch someone's attention by being boring? Everyone knows that people are bombarded by advertising all day long- so you need to stand out. For ages people in advertising have blathered on about "thinking outside the box". It's now considered cliche, but so many never actually acted upon it and instead went the boring and bland route. Consumers decide what they take in, for the most part, by what intrigues them, what entertains them, and what is relevant to them. So, make it provocative and compelling. As Leo Burnett said, "I am one who believes that one of the greatest dangers of advertising is not that of misleading people, but that of boring them to death."

- Don't do what your competitor is doing. Too many companies think that it's OK to do what everyone else is doing. That's wrong. Very wrong. Again, how do you stand out from them if your ads and message are exactly the same? You don't. There are too many ads out there that could easily have the logo and brand name swapped out and be an ad for their competitor. It creates confusion for the consumer and it doesn't help to build the brand. A couple examples would be bank ads, toothpastes, supermarkets, and off-price retailers. As William Bernbach stated, "In advertising, not to be different is virtual suicide."

- Don't be creative and wacky just for the sake of being wacky. This might seem like a contradiction of the first thing I mentioned, but it's not. Creative advertising is very important- but it must also be relevant- either to the consumer (lifestyle, etc) or to the brand (brand story, benefit, etc). Ads that are wacky for the sake of wackiness might catch attention, but they won't do anything for building the brand or getting people to lay down their cash.

- Don't be obtuse. Keep your message simple. As one of my professers used to say: "Keep It Simple Stupid"- a.k.a. K.I.S.S. If you can't explain the concept in less than 3 sentences, it's too complicated. When you only have 60 seconds or 30 seconds-and even less in print before someone flips the page- you need to keep it to the point. If something isn't helping to communicate the idea - ditch it. Stick to the point you are trying to communciate. This goes for design as well- don't use fonts that are hard to read - especially in headlines - and don't design ads where the copy is hidden along the gutter in 6 pt.

- Don't talk down to consumers or insult them. Seems like an obvious thing, but a lot of ads miss the boat with this. They shoot themselves in the foot and they don't even notice. Stereotypes of men and women (here and here too), ethnic stereotypes and the like. This also includes repeating the brand name or benefit 20 times in an advertisement. With media buys using heavy frequency, this becomes especially annoying. As David Ogilvy said, "The consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife."

- Don't forget that you're a consumer too. The specific things that prompt you to buy or try might be different than the target you're trying to reach, but it is important to tap into some of those most basic questions. What prompts you to buy, how do you interact with advertisements, how do you deal with brands that don't live up to their promises, etc. The most important questions are probably, "what makes you pay attention to the ads you see?" And "what makes you avoid or skip ads?" The reasons are probably going to be similar to the average consumer. Sometimes it seems to me there are a good number of people in advertising and marketing that forget this point.

Now, of course, there are going to be times when these are hard to abide by- like when a client demands that 10 points be shoved into one print ad- and all of the points are #1 priority. These are clients that need to be re-educated in the way of effective marketing. They might not be as receptive to learning, and it can be hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but as the advertising climate changes and more brands like Burger King, BMW, and Altoids break away from the "me too", boring, cliche thinking, the brands that don't will be left in the dust. So it becomes a necessity of survival to change their way of thinking rather than a choice.

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Anonymous Adgrunt's picture
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troymcclure's picture

Another excellent post, caffeinegoddess. I bow before the altar of your brilliance.

However, I must take exception with John Hegarty's assertion that "it's wrong to blame (junk food) advertising" for contributing to health problems such as obesity. As caffeienegoddess rightly points out, consumers must certainly shoulder the bulk (no pun intended) of the blame; no one is forcing them to pig out on Whoppers and Egg McMuffins and Hostess Ding Dongs. And yes, as Mr. Hegarty notes, the manufacturers are not exempt either: They are the ones who make the stuff in the first place.

But the ad agencies who push this junk can't shed their share of responsibility. After all, they were hired for their ability to move product and motivate people. They may only be guilty of doing their job too well, but they're guilty all the same.

Ignorance is no excuse. Is there any sentient being out there who is not aware that fast and/or junk food is inherently unhealthy? Would Mr. Hegarty say that ad agencies who shill cigarettes are not to blame for lung cancer?

This brings to mind the contretempts that recently erupted in the pages of ADWEEK recently when Steven Grasse of Gyro accused Crispin Porter of being hypocrites for vilifying tobacco advertising on the one hand with their TRUTH campaign and selling greasy hamburgers on the other. While Mr. Grasse's objectivity is subject to question (his agency has done quite a bit of cigarette advertising), he was dead on the money.

aiiobo's picture

If we were simply the drug dealers whispering xtc.. coke... speed... as people walked by, we'd catch most of the fine upstanding citizens wrath as well, while the Columbian drug lords were safe and sound in their mountain villas far away.
Nobody would blame the buyers, since nobody is forcing them to buy drugs.. We are responsible. Face it. But yes, so are the corporations (read drug lords) who create the food. We are after all, just lowly dealers working to feed our own children, catching most of the hate because we are the most visible target, as we stand there on the streetcorners ...xtc.. coke... speed..... Glue!

This message brought to you by too much coffee and yet another great post from caffeinegoddess.

caffeinegoddess's picture

Glad you liked it. :)

I'm just so sick of people stating things as revolutionary thinking that aren't. If people like Bernbach, Ogilvy, and Burnett were making statements about these issues - which are usually considered words of wisdom in the ad world- how is it a new way of thinking? It's not.

I'm not sure why it gets my goat so much, but it does.

Dabitch's picture

When marketeers and advertisers themselves fall for the old "New!" "Improved" starbursts and 'slap a new name on an old game' tricks, they are clearly on the wrong side of the fence. Punters.

caffeinegoddess's picture

I think you're spot on. :)
I wonder if any of those ad stars from the "good ol' days" would ever have guessed that instead of advertising moving forward- it would go back towards the ideas of their time.