Shouting sweet nothings to sell them pipe dreams

Many brands use the ’emotional sell’, but ads that support this approach are often so sickly sweet they only serve to alienate consumers, argues Sean Brierley

This is a wild guess, but I suspect that the cycling machines at my gym were manufactured in the US. After every session, like over-appreciative lovers, they tell me I have performed a “great workout!”.

The same exclamation appears whether I’ve lasted for an Olympian half-an-hour or an impotent half-a-second. I have a creeping suspicion that the machines are not being wholly discriminating about my performance.

Such cheerleader sincerity is evident in the latest sugar-coated ad campaign from Coca-Cola.

Like many others, I was shocked to learn that the ad was created by a British ad agency. It was less shocking when I heard that it was by the massively over-rated Mother. This agency has been responsible for some of the most dire campaigns in recent years: the cringing hard-nosed Orange ads, the funny but useless Batchelors Cup-A-Soup ads, the Egg glove-puppet ad and the truly awful, “tell Frank” drug helpline ads. But the current cheesy Coca-Cola television execution beats them all. It makes the E-sure ads look art house.

Coke’s latest ad features British singer Sharlene Hector walking along an urban street singing a “Zipadeedoodah” song about freedom while distributing Coke bottles to over-appreciative, decaffeinated punters. It is pregnant with biblical imagery. The opened Coke bottles appear by magic, from a large bag like the feeding of the 5,000 and are distributed by a messianic figure who is accompanied by gospel singers. After its failed attempt to turn tap-water into, er, distilled tap-water, Coke appears to be looking for more successful miracles.

The biggest problem with the ad is the fact that it is based solely on an emotional selling proposition. Coke may not bring you closer to God, but it does fulfil your emotional desire for freedom. It is a sanitised version of consumption where magically the bottles are already open. The ad creates a Cokeland where nothing is paid for and consumption is all about wish fulfilment.

The US ad industry has been obsessed with the emotional sell for more than 70 years. It has its roots in Edward Bernays and the Freudian belief that consumers were controlled by irrational desires. Bernays propagated the now widespread belief in US ad agencies that by applying the principles of psychoanalysis these desires can be manipulated. The end result was the emotional selling proposition that was taken up by such luminaries as David Ogilvy, who summed up the philosophy in terms of “selling the sizzle, not the sausage”.

It produced advertising that focused on one or more of three desires – self-esteem (making the consumer look sexy and successful), personal liberation and self-expression. By linking brands to deeper emotional hopes and fears, the idea is that you can persuade consumers to buy what they dream of – success, freedom and creativity. The idea is that you would promote anything but the actual product or service you are actually selling.

The proposition brought us Nike’s “Just do it”, Coke’s “Coke is it” and L’Oréal’s “Because you’re worth it”. One example closer to home was Peugeot’s corny “Search for the hero inside yourself” ad. The recent Peugeot ads are not much better. The first execution featured an Asian man who smashed a Hinjuda car into a Peugeot and transformed it into an Indian object of desire. The latest execution features an African bus-driver who paints the car onto the side of his bus to make himself more alluring to a local woman. Alright, they may be amusing if you find Bernard Manning funny, but what they are communicating is drivel. The basic message is that people in India and Africa – who haven’t got a pot to piss in – desire it, therefore it’s desirable. Inspired.

Businesses and brands are there to make money. By removing the commerce from ads, consumers feel conned. It is this that has helped to breed consumer cynicism over the years, because the experience does not match up to the emotional promise of the advertising.

Brands do not solve world hunger, bring people together or lure your ex back. They are there to satisfy your consumption needs. Selling the sizzle has had a negligible affect on sales and has created a mistrust of advertising. These kinds of ads remove the commercial aspect of transactions; they try to hide the fact that businesses are there to make a profit. And then brand owners wonder why it is that consumers are angry and resentful that the dreams they have been sold have no relation to reality. Entry to Cokeland isn’t free and your desires cannot be fulfilled by brands.

Though Pepsi’s ads – which rely on celebrity endorsement – are not much better, Coke’s success is a great example of the power of distribution and media buying over creativity. Coke would sell if the ads featured Michael Winner hectoring viewers wearing a gimp mask and a pair of Speedos. If brands that have traded on the emotional selling proposition have been successful it is in spite of, not because of, the advertising. No doubt they’re a “great workout!”, however.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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