Have you ever noticed how people simply assert and accept that advertising is awful? Other than in exceptional circumstances, no one seems to like it or trust it, and its practitioners are routinely ranked alongside used car salesmen and (the shame) lawyers. Whether it’s from asinine billboards that spoil your view, or bovine clichés that clutter up your Instagram feed, it’s generally agreed that corporate messaging adds nothing positive to our lives.
And this is not a new situation. At some point in season three of Mad Men one of the supporting characters jokes to Don Draper about the extent to which people loathe his industry. They both chuckle in rueful recognition.
We all know there is a massive, widespread antipathy towards advertising. Hundreds of millions of ad blockers have been downloaded, and if we’re going to be honest, quite a few of those have even been downloaded by us. And if we’d rather remove advertising from our lives, why should we expect anyone else to welcome it into theirs?
Isn’t this ironic? An entire industry devoted to making sure people like things is routinely hated by everyone, including itself.
Three big points:
- People hate advertising for many excellent reasons.
- None of them are necessary.
- If we don’t address them, advertising as we know it is fucked.
We’ll get to the solutions in a little while, but first we need to take a long, tepid bath in ‘Advertising sucks because…’.
The first reason for this negativity seems to be the built-in mendacity that we convey. There is often a gap between the advertised experience of a product or service, and the reality. Whether that’s by omission, exaggeration or misrepresentation, we do tend to fib to our intended audience. For a clear and basic example, compare the mouthwatering image of a Whopper behind the counter of your local Burger King with the underwhelming mess you find when you open the box. That, in a nutshell, is most people’s experience of advertising.
I understand that it’s supposed to be our job to present the very best version of our clients to their customers, but if we look at the consequences of that we might understand that such a practice can leave those customers disappointed and resentful. We now accept the untruth of advertising messages so unthinkingly that we screen out the first, say, 20% of each communication. “Yes,” we say to ourselves, “But it’s an ad. Of course it’s bullshit to some degree”. (By the way, I think there’s a place for ridiculous exaggeration; it’s the relation to reality that seems underhand.)
Imagine if you had a friend who was always exaggerating about their new house, car or job. You’d probably feel a bit sorry for them, find them a bit annoying, and, quite soon, screen out that 20% and lower your expectations of their reality. Are any of those reactions positive? Of course not. Advertising is usually your sad mate who is so insecure they have to beef up everything they say for fear that you will be unimpressed if they don’t. Perhaps you’d avoid this friend, preferring instead to spend time with honest people who don’t feel the need to treat you like some credulous idiot who will swallow lie after lie.
A constant red flag for our liberal attitude to the truth is the legal type you find on most commercials and print ads. They are the small print of our contacts with the people who experience what we do, and they are necessary because the information included in the ads can often be misleading. So here’s the extra important stuff people need to know before jumping into a purchase they might regret.
But we can’t even be honest about that. This is apparently essential information that is so important the ad and its claims cannot appear without it. So not only are we saying that our claims require a huge paragraph of qualifying backup, suggesting that said claims are a little dodgy, we’re also printing this information at a size and/or speed no reasonable person can take in. We hide it away with annoyed scorn, ensuring that our readers and viewers will not benefit from it. Then we wonder why people hate what we do.
Again, imagine if you had a friend that suggested loudly and enthusiastically that you buy their car, but as you looked around it they mumbled some important information so quietly as to be inaudible. Then you bought the car and discovered a problem that had been covered by the mumbling. “Ah,” your friend might say, “But I did explain that the exhaust was knackered, so there’s nothing you can do about it”. What would you think of that person? Yes, you would indeed think that they were an arsehole.
Next? The portrayal of supposedly realistic situations. Yes, I understand that ads, just like TV shows and movies, are not documentaries, but how many times have we seen commercials that portray women as braindead housewives, or men as amusing idiots who have to be saved from their own stupidity by tolerant spouses or kids? Or people lit and shot and styled in a such a way that they look unattainably gorgeous? If that’s supposed to bear some relation to reality, why are those lives so frustratingly perfect? Yes, it’s that portrayal of the client at its best again, but every one of these examples is provides an impression of life for millions of people. If they’re patronising or sexist or nasty that will provide a blueprint for the future opinions of the viewers.
I’ll stop personifying the industry as various heartless bastards and daft idiots, but I think we can agree that the vast majority of portrayals of people by the ad industry have not benefitted society. Unrealistic body images turning teenagers to anorexia; the smug satisfaction of ‘aspirational’ lifestyles leading to mental health issues; the vast numbers of people either not represented, or conveyed in a token manner contributing to racism and sexism.
Anything else? How about promoting pester power by advertising sugary food and drink and endless plastic toys to children? Being a parent is hard enough without the persuasive might of massive corporations insisting your child needs Coco Pops and Nerf Guns. And let’s not forget that some of us like to get ’em while they’re young to make lifelong customers out of them and keep that money rolling in for years to come.
How many times have we pulled the wool over people’s eyes by describing a candy bar as a health bar? Thanks to the advertising industry, words such as ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ and even ‘organic’ have ceased to mean anything. We take words and kill them for the sake of fooling people into buying products that don’t deserve such compliments.
And talking of not deserving such compliments, it’s worth mentioning the extent to which advertising whitewashes, greenwashes and wokewashes all sorts of badly behaved corporations. Ad agencies can certainly take credit for building stellar brands by distracting customers from sweat shops, human rights abuses and mass exploitation. What about companies that employ armies of lawyers and accountants to avoid their tax obligations while underpaying their workers to the extent that they need government welfare to survive? These days no brand is complete without a ‘for good’ initiative that gives them some kind of flimsy soap box upon which to lecture the rest of us about equality, diversity or the environment, issues that meant nothing to them a few years ago (and in some hypocritical cases continue to mean nothing).
Yes, advertising has often been the best friend of bullies, thieves and cheats, accepting untold millions to present their best sides to the world in order to maximise profits and keep the status quo rolling along unquestioned.
Those are just some of ways in which the content we create harms people, leading to an understandable hatred of what we do, but what about how little advertising has a positive effect on our daily lives?
For over a hundred years the vast majority of what we’ve produced has been boring, annoying, stupid or all of the above. We like to point to the 1% of the 1% of the 1% that gets awarded at Cannes, conveniently ignoring just how much of that has been created for the purpose of winning prizes (the two-minute version that ran at midnight on the Golfing Channel; the case studies that talk about a 300% increase because eight products were sold instead of two; creating ads for accounts you don’t even have to get a greater chance of juror votes…). But when it comes to the real stuff, how many ads have you seen in the last five years that added something to your day? How many were interesting or inspiring or intelligent or thought provoking? How many did you even notice, let alone remember?
We used to be annoyed at posters ruining the landscape, commercials interrupting our favourite TV programmes and radio ads so incessant we’re were forced to switch to another channel for the sake of our sanity. But now we have the delight of digital. Again, it interrupts what you’re trying to read or watch, but now it also funds crime, corrupts democracy and promotes hatred and division.
The money is flowing out of the traditional ad industry to Google and Facebook because their cheap, basic ads are no worse than the crap we’d been producing for years. We can’t complain that poorly-written messages featuring starbursts and stock shots are eating our lunch when that’s most of what we fed people for years. And now those chickens have come home to roost, fueled by targeting data, and a degree of accountability we never provided.
And here’s the real kicker: we knew very well that people hated most of what we did because we were some of those people. Advertising’s lack of self-awareness is stunning. When most people in the industry decry the state of the industry you’d think they were talking about something in which they had no involvement. But it’s like corrupt politicians complaining about the backhanders in government, or lazy footballers who can’t understand why their team didn’t win. This is our problem, and the fact that we don’t do anything about it is another reason for the hatred.
Advertising people have become shorthand for the superficial, slick, self-obsessed, cynical and crass. If you want to know how society at large sees your job, check out how it’s portrayed in the movies. ‘Ad industry person’ has long been unsubtle code for ‘arsehole’. We’re never the good guys improving society. Instead we’re the glib boyfriends and girlfriends the main character needs to dump so he or she can learn a lesson and find someone better.
And what does all this hatred mean? If we all take ads with a pinch of salt then we automatically screen out the messages, reducing their impact, and that’s if we notice them at all. Almost all advertising is wallpaper at best and loathed at worst. That’s literally billions of pounds, dollars and euros that could be put to better use.
Unsurprisingly, clients have noticed this situation and have responded in a number of ways, none of which the industry is at all keen on. First, we get much less respect, so we have to battle harder for less time and less money to produce our work. Deadlines that used to give us a week now give us a few days, or even hours. Budgets have been cut to the bone, especially for ads that will only appear in digital media (sorry, but that’s now most of them). And they’ve also gone running into the arms of Google and Facebook, where so-so advertising can now be produced for much less money.
So you can see why they don’t really want or need us anymore. Our previous USP, transformative ideas brilliantly executed, happens so rarely that a client would have to be naively optimistic or ridiculously credulous to spend much more money in the pursuit of such elusive riches. And so the vicious circle spins, leaving us with even less cash to find even worse talent, to produce increasingly ineffective ads.
OK, that’s over 2000 words. There’s no way you’re going to read another 2000 on the solution, so I’ll post that next week.