Agencies come down to earth

A study by Grey International reveals a shift towards more realistic ads across Europe. John Shannon argues this represents a change in attitude rather than an advertising fad

The advertising industry is often accused of presenting an idealised view of life. But a survey recently conducted across Grey International’s European network suggests there is a growing tendency in most countries to introduce greater realism into advertising than has previously been the case.

By realism I do not mean the sort of exploitative sensationalism of Benetton that was recently condemned by Germany’s Federal Court – the Bundesgerichtshof – but a striving to reflect real life as experienced by the majority of consumers.

Analysis of our findings shows two fundamental reasons for this trend. The first, like so many of the issues affecting the ad industry, is rooted in recession. After a period of rapid growth in many markets, the suddenness and ferocity of the subsequent recession dealt a harsh blow to consumer confidence. The atmosphere of invul nerability and limitless opportunity was replaced by one of realism, frugality and an acceptance of uncertainty about the future.

This shift in attitude is reflected in a wide range of commercials. In the UK, a McDonald’s ad features a father trying to explain to his son the breakdown of his marriage, Audi cleverly turns Eighties materialism on its head in its commercials and Allied Dunbar dramatises the unexpected through its depiction of a middle-age pregnancy. In France, meanwhile, Nescafé is using the familiar couple format but the two people are divorced.

The second reason for this readiness to embrace realism is that advertisers are waking up to the fact that they may have missed out on valuable markets by relying too heavily upon an advertising language that was out of step with demographic change and shifting consumer requirements.

Grey International’s findings show this most clearly in the depiction of women and the acceptance of ageing (as in the ad

for Nivea Vital, running in Switzerland, Germany and France). Both are the direct result of demographic and social change. I suspect that the

latter is also partly driven by the ageing baby boomers who make each new age group fashionable as they enter it.

A few years ago an agency casting for a beauty product commer cial would avoid selecting models over 40, even if they matched the target market. Today, such disregard for verisimilitude is more likely to alienate middle-aged consumers than win them over.

Unlike so many trends in advertising that turn out to be fads, I expect advertising realism to remain with us, and indeed to grow. For while it is directly driven by economic factors in tandem with social and demographic change, the underlying hunger for greater honesty in ads comes from growing consumer sophistication, their understanding of how ads work and the empowerment of the consumer by advances in media and information technology.

These are developments that will not be reversed.

John Shannon is president of Grey International.