Mark Ritson: Accept it, people hate ads – yes, all of them

Marketers delude themselves into believing consumers like ads, but by accepting they don’t you’ll better understand how to make an effective one.

Attend enough marketing conferences and all of them start to feel essentially the same.

A slightly greying creative director in black jeans shares his stories of big agency success. A perky CMO from overseas tells you about the power of purpose and how she harnessed it to generate 900% something something. Then a big keynote from someone you have never heard of, but assume you are supposed to, involves him sharing his ads and proves empty to the point of tedium.

A session on media disruption follows and then we reach the lowest circle of marketing conference hell, the industry panel. Four usual suspects balance on high chairs, look respectfully at whoever is speaking and give inanely shit answers to cliched questions like: ‘Should you trust your gut or go with data?’, ‘Just how important is creativity?’ and ‘How do we stop CFOs from making us short-termist?’.

The answers are: Data. Very. That’s bollocks.

You’re welcome. Can we kill panels forever now?

And among all the identikit conference planning there is one particular old advertising chestnut that always comes up. Always. As sure as the fact that the most interesting conference debate is outside by the bins among the smokers, or that the one marketer you really wanted to meet is a last minute no-show. At some point at every marketing conference you’ve ever been to someone gets up on stage and declares (drum roll, please):

“People don’t hate advertising. They hate bad advertising.”

I shall not name or shame the illustrious industry leaders who have made this pronouncement over the years at one event or another. Suffice to say there are dozens and that old bastard Google will immediately assist you if you care to look.

Deal with the reality. Welcome it. Plan for it. Say it at conferences. Accept the shitness of what you do. It will make you a better marketer.

My point is that this is patently not true. I understand why people in marketing want to think this. I appreciate the outlook for those marketers who have spent, or are about to spend, their lives working on stuff that is ignored at best and abhorred at worst is pretty grim. You want to tell yourself – against everything you observed as a child and before your life as a marketer – that people actually love ads. A lot.

READ MORE: Ad saturation and over-targeting damaging people’s trust in brands

They hate bad ads, of course, why wouldn’t they? But fortunately, the marketer tells herself as she starts her car each morning, I don’t make that kind of advertising. I make the other kind. The good kind. The kind people like. The kind that roots them to the spot; that causes them to laugh a deep, genuine belly laugh of delight and then reach out, eyes streaming with tears, to friends and family and laugh even more.

Or ads that make people think, earnestly, about stuff and learn important life lessons. Yes, that is the kind of advertising I work on, she says as she overtakes a Fiat on the M2.

Advertising fallacies

For reassurance most marketers cite the fact that every consumer has a personal favourite ad that they treasure. That’s certainly true of most people.  Mine is for Tennent’s lager. It was made in 1991 and features a lad from Up North who can’t stand his job in London and packs it in on whim, gets on the train home and gets back to Edinburgh in time for a piss-up with his mates in the local.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to work out why it remains my beloved commercial. I was marketing cash machines in London and generally hating every fucking moment. Even though I’m from 20 miles south of the Scottish border, that Tennent’s ad made me weep every time it appeared.

But the key point is that my favourite ad, and probably yours too, was experienced half a lifetime ago. If we believe the (almost certainly incorrect) estimates then, in the interval between seeing that wonderful paean to northern booze and now, I have been exposed to just over 50 million further ads. And most of them were total shit. And I hated almost all of them.

Arguing that a single favourite ad proves people like advertising is like suggesting that because you once briefly tapped your foot to ‘Baby’ you think that Justin Bieber and his whole back catalogue is fantastic. A stopped clock gives you the right time twice a day. A fucked-up, unpopular medium produces a likable ad every 20 years or so.

And before you spring to some rational defense of advertising and its place in the bosom of most people’s hearts, allow me to introduce the ace card that all those conference speakers were missing: evidence. Not only do the conference speakers always tell you that “people like ads” they always say it with the exact same evidence: their own subjective experience. So read the chart below and weep.

A representative sample of consumers in key countries was recently asked by Kantar how they feel about advertising. They were asked which staement they agree with: they dislike it generally; it does not bother them; or they like it generally, it can be enjoyable. In the UK a grand total of 11% of the population surveyed said that they liked advertising. The other 89% either said they didn’t give a toss or they disliked it.

And I even query the paltry 11% who professed a positive attitude to ads. Asking them if they like ads generally and then adding ‘it can be enjoyable’ is a lousy question Kantar, sorry. Being kicked in the balls can be enjoyable if its being done by the right person, at the right velocity and as a prelude to something seriously enjoyable down the track. Let’s move on.

I’ll bet if we had kept the option as just ‘I like ads generally’ the proportion agreeing would have plummeted to single digits.

Accept reality and you’ll make better ads

But why is any of this important? Can’t we leave marketers and agency folk alone in their gilded arse-shaped bubble of positivity? If telling themselves they are creating popular works of culture helps them get through the day, isn’t that ok?

Alas, it is not. Because when you start believing advertising is liked you start making ineffective ones as a result. If you understand your ads are hated, ignored, despised and avoided you create ones that work within those limitations to do what they must do. If you think you are making welcomed pieces of content then your output becomes as addled and mushy as your mindset.

The Ehrenberg Bass Institute did an amazing bit of research a couple of years ago showing that the average consumer could both remember and then correctly attribute only 16% of the TV ads they had been exposed to the previous day. Why so low? Because the way ads are created – over months, with great attention and an overriding belief that the message will be welcomed by the audience – is diametrically opposed to the fleeting few seconds of partial attention and antipathy that constitutes how they are actually consumed.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Revenue is a lousy measure of success for most ad campaigns

Accepting that people dislike advertising is not a negative thought. It’s a realistic one. And once you embrace realism – like any aspect of actual market orientation – your advertising improves.

It’s like the legion of brand managers and CMOs who think their brands play a big part in people’s lives. Fuck off. You have mistaken your intense obsession with career progression for your target market’s almost complete lack of interest in your brand.

Addled brand managers want to promote a brand purpose of relieving societal friction; consumers just want to stop the buttock-chafing when they go to the gym. Brands are little, little things. Realism is the route to better brand management and more success.

And the same goes for advertising. People hate it. Good ads. Bad ads. All ads.

Maybe, if you are lucky, they don’t give a fuck about your advertising. Like a turd on the footpath that people avoid in order to get on with their day. Deal with that reality. Welcome it. Plan for it. Say it at conferences. Accept the shitness of what you do. It will make you a better marketer. It will enable you to make better ads.

And people still won’t notice. Or care.

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Comments

There are 22 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Kevin Gordon 11 Apr 2019

    There was a time in Moscow when you could not walk 50 metres up the Tverskaya without being punched in the face by a large breasted woman leaning over a pool table and some insignificant brand attaching itself to the image. Fortunately since then, things have been cleaned up and you can see where you are walking. This does two things. It makes the place nicer and it makes the remaining ad spaces more impactful. All too often today we see UK Television becoming mindnumpingly American in its transmission of TV ads one after the other until it all becomes a “MINDMASH” Advertisers need to charge more for spaces, reduce the trash and increase the quality, but all too often we see ads that have nothing to say because they resonate with the marketing team but don’t resonate with the public because data has been cast aside by opinion. Trevor Beatty said it when he said “I’m sitting on a bus and I don’t care about your ad, I have a life, I don’t care about your ads or your offers and you have to disrupt my thinking” John Hegarty also said it when he announced most advertising is Wallpaper because you’re doing what everyone else is doing, and Dave Trott delivered the facts that most of it doesn’t work because people are doing it wrong. No problem. Keep doing it wrong. If people don’t want to listen, then they must lose their money until it hurts enough to change: a bit like “Hits” V ” Real Sales”.

  2. Julian Pratt 11 Apr 2019

    Delightful.

  3. Dave Tindall 11 Apr 2019

    Mark, I think your points in the article about people not giving a shit are more accurate than saying people hate adverts. My comparison of choice would be that adverts are like traffic lights; something people would rather avoid, find a bit annoying, understand why they exist, but ultimately something they rarely think about until they’re in a rush and the lights are either all on their side (Tennent’s lager) or holding them up at every turn (most other ads).

    I really don’t understand why so many marketers seem to think the average person has any interest in their brand or advertising when they should all have more than enough anecdotal evidence to the contrary – reasons friends give for preferring BBC TV/radio, comments about arriving at the cinema 15 minutes late to miss the ads, ad blockers online etc. In this case my comparison would be children – prior to procreating we all promise ourselves that we won’t be “those parents” and that we know to everyone else our child will be a just another snotty nose terror, but the moment they enter this world we forget all that and can’t help but telling everyone how wonderful they are!

    Ultimately we all need to be guided by the principal that the average consumer is trying to avoid us and devise our strategy accordingly!

  4. John Shenton 11 Apr 2019

    The problem with most ads is that the writer does not understand the art of selling.
    First ask yourself – what is the desired outcome
    Second – who is going to NEED this
    If the answer is we don’t care then carry on and waste the viewers time and the clients money.

  5. Tadas R. 11 Apr 2019

    The reality is more nuanced than that. There are some categories and some brands that pull people like a magnet. For example, luxury fashion brands have tens of millions of followers on Instagram. You can’t really say that these people hate or are indifferent towards brands they decided to follow. Their feeds are filled with nothing but a long stream of advertising.
    Moreover, some Vogue issues have up to 75% of all pages filled with ads, but that is fine with readers as long as the ads are the same or even better quality.

  6. Mark Ritson 11 Apr 2019

    Dave says “I think your points in the article about people not giving a shit are more accurate than saying people hate adverts”

    Dave, more than a third of the British sample agreed with the statement. “I dislike it generally”.

  7. Mark Ritson 11 Apr 2019

    Tadas says it’s more “nuanced” than that.

    34% of British people dislike all ads

    55% if British people don’t care about ads.

  8. Rob Taylor 11 Apr 2019

    I suspect that if you asked the writer, @John Shenton, they would say that the problem with most ads is the client.

  9. Dave Tindall 11 Apr 2019

    True, but almost two-third like or don’t care about advertising… I think people are just apathetic, I’m no market research expert but potentially a bit of response bias in here too given the prompt in the question? The level of respondent dislike must be much lower than the genuine issues in their lives – mortgage repayments, hating their job, Brexit, etc.

    I’m in agreement that we have to work from a start point that customers don’t like or enjoy advertising, however do we interpret this data and execute differently for hate and apathy?

  10. Memory Nyanga 11 Apr 2019

    Best article I have ever read!

  11. Alex Collins 11 Apr 2019

    Agree with Memory Nyanga, though its got tough competition with all of Mark’s other outputs. Keep them coming Mark (PLEASE).

  12. Tadas R. 11 Apr 2019

    Mark,
    I’m actually surprised that you believe what people say rather than what they do.
    Data shows that between 53% to 80% of people follow at least one brand or business. Those numbers don’t add up with Kantar. Unless people don’t define content on social media as advertising. What else don’t they define as advertising? Do 55% of British people dislike search advertising in general as well? The question in a survey is too subjective imho.

  13. Dave Tindall 11 Apr 2019

    Good point Tadas, but I think we can assume this is about strategic brand advertising. As happens at any presentation from the television advertising industry, when the audience are asked to think of their favourite advert and the vast majority think of a TV ad, I’m sure most respondents were thinking of those. In the same breath I’m sure those saying they like advertising/it can be enjoyable are thinking of a relevant paid search ad or a well optimised ecommerce website!

  14. Tadas R. 11 Apr 2019

    Couldn’t agree more, Dave. Exactly my point that the general public sees advertising as something that interrupts their favourite TV show. People love seeing James Bond in Aston Martin and enjoy following their football club on Instagram. But they don’t put these things in the same category as a TV clip that shows a product and a brand name at the end of it.
    Knowing this, we can’t say that people hate advertising; they merely have a limited understanding of what advertising is.

  15. Frank Zazza 11 Apr 2019

    30 year vet in product placement measurement and TV advertising – sat through and spoke on hundreds of conferences – still laughing on the candid reality of this article. “Well done”

  16. Al King 12 Apr 2019

    “Like a turd on the footpath that people avoid in order to get on with their day.” Classic Ritson.

  17. paul alexander 13 Apr 2019

    Tears of joy

  18. William Poel 14 Apr 2019

    He’s sooo right. We’ve been working on alternatives to interrupt TV commercials since IPTV first emergeed. The biggest barrier has been marketing Luddites who delude themlseves and really believe the punters are happy to hand 25% of the leisure time over to TV content providers to sell for commercials that are almost entirely irrelevant, intelligence insulting and crap. Even households with online VOD options from commercial channels still record the shows off-air on a PVR – so they can skip the commercials. Advertising industry – for Pity’s Sake Stop Kidding Yourselves.

    (Next, can someone please do a rant about the folly of paywalls on news/magazine content?)

  19. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 15 Apr 2019

    Don’t let anyone tell you that brands don’t pay a big part in people’s lives. Several brands played a big part in mine. At least for the several days it took me to unsubscribe from the bastards.

  20. R Roy 17 Apr 2019

    Looking forward to seeing you on a panel at the next Festival of Marketing.

  21. Craig McGregor 17 Apr 2019

    Brilliantly polarising, as always Mark.
    Advertising IS selling, and who likes being sold to?
    Very, very rarely, advertising transcends this mercenary agenda and becomes a thing of memorable wit and beauty. Apple. Tennents. Carlsberg. We all have our own faves…
    So yes, we all try to avoid it, and anyway right now there is just TOO much ‘selling’ and ‘disruption’ and f******** engagement, everywhere.
    But, if you can do it right, surely it’s worth at least some of the effort? And salaries??
    Keep it up Mr Ritson.

  22. Phillip Ohren 17 Apr 2019

    Well, you’ve changed your tune – welcome to the world of utility & relevance – brought to you by Digital.

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