Everyone knows that advertising has an image problem. According to a recent Gallup poll, it is one of the most negatively viewed industries in America, alongside healthcare, oil and gas, politics, and law. Even people working within the industry often hate it. Some defend advertising's ills with the usual cop-out: "It's just business." Some call advertising a "necessary evil." But marketing can be better. It is not an inherently evil practice. At its best, advertising informs people about products and services and, in turn, helps to fund many other industries. Advertising can still rescue its reputation. And today, with technology and culture evolving faster than ever, progress is essential.
As consumers continue to raise their expectations, the ad industry's reputation problem only grows. According to a study from Adobe, 68 percent of consumers find online advertising annoying, 54 percent say banner ads don't work (surprise!), and 53 percent agree that most marketing is "a bunch of B.S." With digital and big data, there are countless opportunities for advertising to evolve. While marketers are attempting to use technology to make advertising more effective and appealing, with ideas like personalized ads, they are still falling short.
The image problem for advertising is particularly dire in America. In Europe, many consumers actually appreciate ads, rather than going out of their way to avoid them. Arguably, this is because American advertising, though often high-budget, is poorer quality (i.e., more intrusive, less informative, and less entertaining). Or it's because there are so many more ads -- in practically every place one could imagine. Regardless, this industry, known for being rigid and uptight to a fault, is in desperate need of change so that consumer trust isn't lost for good.
Here are the four major reasons people despise the ad industry. Within these reasons lies the path to salvation.
In another recent Gallup poll, this one measuring people's honesty ratings for different professions, advertisers fared poorly, landing right between Congressmen and stockbrokers. In its typical fashion, The Onion called out the industry on its dishonest ways, saying the Publicis-Omnicom merger brought together a large pool of people "whose only apparent ability is to trick other people." This hits the nail on the head in the eyes of the public. Putting aside ethics, the fact is people aren't as easily tricked anymore. Where deception and manipulation have worked just fine in the past, today's consumers have access to more information than ever -- and they share it with their peers.
The problem is the industry is stuck in its crafty ways. It is using technology to trick people in new ways, sometimes under the guise of "native" advertising, rather than seizing the opportunity to lift the veil. And honestly, whether you embrace it or not, transparency is becoming a like-it-or-not reality. So for brands, it's time to cut out the hypocrisy. A trustworthy reputation is much more valuable than any crafty advertisement or marketing strategy. You don't want a customer who was fooled into buying a product that doesn't meet their needs; you want one who happily agrees to buy it and then tells their friends to buy it too.
Ads, as well as big brands, don't have a great track record. Today, if you want to set yourself apart, it's brutal honesty that gets attention. Patagonia is the famous example, with its "Don't buy this jacket" campaign. It's common sense, really. People trust those who admit their faults openly. You don't necessarily have to be perfect; you just have to be upfront. It's much easier and much more effective to be straight with people, given you are selling a quality product. And if your product sucks? Well, then you're dead in the water once people on the internet get the chance to expose you.
Businesses are for profit. So how does one fairly call an industry out as greedy? Everyone wants to make money, but greed is different. Greed is about disregarding things like ethics in the name of getting an egregious payoff. For consumers, this is where trickery, manipulation, and a lack of transparency become that much worse. They don't want to make evil corporations richer. In fact, the only reason that honesty and corporate transparency are now becoming trendy is because it's the profitable choice.
Some defend data mining, claiming it is "anonymous" and completely harmless. But then why conceal the specifics? Why shouldn't actual users see any of the profit? Or at least have to give some form of informed consent? The industry hasn't properly addressed consumer concerns, so its image remains rightfully tarnished, and consumers remain skeptical. Moreover, visiting a website once and then having ads from that company follow you around for the rest of your life isn't exactly helpful. It's annoying. That's not what people mean by "personalized" and "relevant." So who is really benefitting?
This space remains a mess, but it's clear that there is a data feeding frenzy going on, and marketers aren't about to be left out. But the ad industry won't win out when it paints itself as a greedy vulture munching on all that juicy data -- data that it doesn't even understand -- just because it can.
From a lay person's perspective, marketers don't talk like real people. They throw around words and phrases that even they don't understand.
The problem with ad language is this: Sometimes it is intentionally ambiguous. It is language meant to quell questions and circumvent clarity. Synonyms and vague abstractions are often used, rather than clarifying language. Appearance trumps meaning. A marketer's job is often to make things sound shiny when they are not. But if you want to connect with consumers, why start speaking a different language? That's a sure way to scare them off. Try this: Be direct, be clear, and be honest. Sure, you are making yourself more vulnerable this way, but that's how you earn someone's trust.
And this goes for conversations within the industry as well. It often appears that marketers enjoy talking in circles and spouting never-ending chains of run-on sentences at each other. But nothing is going to get done this way. For progress to occur, industry people need to be having meaningful conversations about marketing.
Don't get me wrong. Many wonderful people work in the ad industry. But even the best of them, when they start talking shop, can run on at the mouth a bit. Can you honestly say you don't regularly leave conversations with peers thinking, "You just took 30 minutes to say something that could be said in 30 seconds"?
Here's the other thing marketers like to make up: studies. Advertising companies liberally fabricate their own self-serving "facts" and "statistics." (For example, we’ve all seen the SMS marketing firm that comes out with a "ground-breaking" study on the overwhelming effectiveness of SMS marketing.) These are usually based on a thread of truth, but the fine print is often lengthy and suspicious. (Or, there is intentionally no fine print because marketers hope no one asks to see a source of the information.)
Of course, there are exceptions. Some research from marketing companies is legitimate. Unfortunately for them, their legitimate findings are likely to get lost in the sea of half-truths and doctored statistics. Our industry has become skeptical of itself. Can you blame consumers for their distrust?
Even advertisers' own metrics are frequently doctored and self-serving, measuring success in accidental clicks and statistics that have been bent to impress. The time it takes to dress up these numbers would be better spent on actual thought, analysis, and discussion. If the industry continues to only care about appearing to succeed rather than actually succeeding, it will fail.
Consumers don't appreciate being treated like idiots. But advertisers seem to think people are too stupid to notice all of the aforementioned issues. All too often, the tone of advertising is just plain condescending. (And consumers are especially sensitive to gender stereotypes, both female and male.)
People don't trust messages that are watered down, oversimplified, and stereotyped. For example, this Clorox ad was intended to appeal to a broad range of consumers by mocking "green freaks," but it just comes off as insulting. The problem is that in the public eye, the voice of advertising is one that talks down to its audience. Marketers talk a lot about the importance of "knowing their audience," but today, their audience is a tired one. Consumers are ready to be talked to as people, not children.
Advertising has historically focused on selling to people rather than getting to know them. That is changing, but not fast enough. If companies shifted their focus to customer service, then ads would be free to focus on information rather than hyperbole. Saying everything is "the best" or "No. 1" is a sure way to get your entire audience to instantly glaze over. We know that buying the right household cleaner is not going to make our families perfect. Consumers today just want to know if it is a good product. While playing to emotions can be effective, unless it's done extremely well -- and with maturity -- it can completely backfire, sending consumers quickly into the territory of, "Hey, I'm not that stupid."
Maybe what digital advertising needs is a lesson in old-school elegance and simplicity. Trader Joe's advertising consists exclusively of a monthly newsletter and radio commercials featuring employee voiceovers. The first time I heard one of these radio ads, I remember distinctly that it caught my attention because there was no music or background noise of any kind. I was just listening to one human voice tell me about what's new at a store. It stood out to me because it was quiet. And it worked because I already knew I liked Trader Joe's for its great products and shopping experience. This ad served as a reminder. Simple.
I know how great Zappos' customer service is because I have heard about it -- but not because the company paid for a billion-dollar ad telling me how great it is (which I would have instantly written off). Word-of-mouth and customer service are what truly sells today's customers.
The ad industry is lagging behind in far too many ways. Companies are stuck in archaic processes, appearance is valued over understanding, unethical business practices are shrugged off, and race and gender issues still pervade (talk about behind the times).
Most of all, the industry needs to fundamentally shift its attitude toward the consumer. "They are all looking for an internet strategy when it's their customer they are ignoring," writes blogger Simon Sinek. "The ad industry thinks their clients are their customers. They think the companies who pay for the production are the ones they are supposed to serve. So the ads they produce make their clients happy...but infuriate the rest of us."
In a blog by Joseph Czikk entitled "The Marketing Playbook is Broken: Why People Hate Marketers and How This Can Change," HubSpot CMO Mike Volpe says, "We are still marketing to people like it's the 1970s." Volpe says marketers need to stop interrupting consumers. Czikk writes, "Every consumer needs to be treated differently and with respect." He concludes that effective marketing is all about common sense treatment of consumers. "Do it for the children," he says, "because the next generation of consumers might actually like marketers again."
Consumer trust can be regained if, above all else, the industry can address its fatal flaw: blind fear of criticism. Stop getting defensive, stop apologizing, stop rationalizing, stop playing it safe, and stop backing away from tough questions. Don't shirk the issues; address them.
Start a discussion.
Chloe Della Costa is an associate editor at iMedia Connection.
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