An Advertising Reformation?

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I may be looking too hard for hopeful signs but I think we may be at the threshold of a reformation in advertising, which will mean larger changes in the communications world overall. Here are two of them and why I think they’re important (and somewhat related):

First, there may be a growing recognition that advertising isn’t inherently bad. An Institute for Advertising Ethics was announced this week by the American Advertising Foundation (whatever that is) and the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, with the purpose, in my words, to rescue advertisers from themselves. 

Ads aren’t bad by definition and no consumer wakes up hating them; rather, we marketers have perfected our ability to fill them with half-truths, empty promises, and irrelevant humor. The corporate world spends many billions each year to buy the privilege to tell people things…and then tell them little or nothing that matters. 

And then we wonder why they don’t trust advertising, or why corporate reputations are at all-time lows. I’ve never understood this doublethink affliction of ours. The ethics body might be a start of treatment that is long overdue:

  • Imagine if ads were backed by objective, verifiable standards that didn’t make allowances for claims that were generally true but affirmed the specific integrity of every statement? BP would have never gotten away with a decade of claiming it was "beyond petroleum" and winning awards for its creative parsing of the facts. What if ads were true?
  • What if ads were somehow rated (and then perhaps encouraged via better pricing) by measure of their substance and/or utility? I have no idea how to come up with the criteria but the fact that so many of the commercials on TV these days are useless and not terribly funny doesn’t help the industry whatsoever.
  • How about some binding declaration of consistency and transparency? Again, the devil’s in the details but every time a McDonald’s logo appears next to those Olympics rings helps to destroy the credibility of every advertiser. 

Second, there may be a burgeoning sense that social media aren’t intrinsically good, or that social technologies aren’t a viable replacement for advertising. Every communicator knows that businesses and their stakeholder groups have always been engaged in conversations of one form or another. The idea is nothing new; rather, what’s happened over the past few decades is that companies have delegitimized their traditional tools for contributing to those conversations (see point above). Social media technologies are simply less overtly illegitimate than advertising. 

Or not:

  • Consumers are slowly waking up to the fact that bloggers are no more unbiased or insightful than the corporate voices and journalists they purported to replace (trust in them is declining precipitously, and research shows that they mostly regurgitate publicly available info vs. creating net-new stuff anyway).
  • The "up is the new down" thinking required to embrace social media strategies is losing favor with clients, as evidenced by how many advocates are now talking about making real money instead of ROI, social currency, or whatever other nonsense measures they’ve been promoting over the past decade. Stand-alone social campaigns are getting folded into broader strategies which themselves are the conversations.
  • The technology argument is reaching its dinosaur-like end, which is that social media needs to be used to reorganize entire companies and rewrite every business process. Er, sure. That’s like saying the way to replace your favorite comfy chair in the living room is to redecorate your house. Then move it. And then flip it inside out. I know a few big name brands that have stopped letting technologists tell them how to do marketing. Some experience actually selling vs. starting endlessly purposeless conversations is looking good these days.

I’m being optimistic, of course. 

Talk of revolutions and paradigm shifts and the next top ten ways to do social is to many still as intoxicating as it is easy and irresponsible. A number of CMOs are still living in abject fear of losing their jobs, so they’re going to copy whatever gets headlines because they hope it’ll give them plausible deniability. Since there’ve never been any rules by which to measure or judge branding, it’s impossible to conclude that even the nuttiest social media campaigns are failing.

Unless you consider sales the ultimate measure, which is what and why advertising and marketing communications came about in the first place.

Maybe a reformation is what’s ahead of us? Instead of throwing out one set of bad, ineffective behaviors for another one, perhaps the industry is on the verge of rediscovering its purpose and original claims to legitimacy? A reformation would be a return to basics…an affirmation of truths that are then strengthened and delivered in new, better ways. An advertising reformation would focus on putting the horse back in front of the proverbial cart.

I don’t know if the Institute for Advertising Ethics will help lead this charge. Committees aren’t known for boldness, and some of the announced studies about what consumers want are outright laughable (the challenge isn’t complicated at least in terms of identifying the problem). There are also lots of very smart, creative, and forceful advocates still arguing for more spending and patience with social media. Maybe the marketing leadership inside companies needs more time lost in the desert before they come to their senses.

But I am convinced that the reformation will come. I am a believer.

(Image: UC Calgary. I believe the print is in the public domain)

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