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.
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.
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.
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.