The Campaign to Kill Advertising

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It’s likely that $1 billion or more will be spent on advertising during the 2012 Presidential race, even though few experts believe it will do much to sway voters. What it will most certainly accomplish is to further erode the value and utility of advertising as a tool for communicating truth.

When Sue Unerman and I wrote our book Tell The Truth, we found that advertising has always had a somewhat complex relationship with truth. There are at least three broad ways it gets mishandled in ads — the “Three As” — and this year’s political spots are giving us extreme and obvious examples:

Angle: It’s very common to take a sliver of truth and elevate it far beyond its legitimate or contextual proportions. Obama failed to create jobs. Romney loves firing people. My thumbnail review of about a dozen ads tells me that the dueling campaigns are focused on slicing-and-dicing their records with little regard for whether the claims would be defensible if, say, viewers opened both eyes, or had even a residual recollection of recent history.

Sadly, this is a storied practice in the commercial world, whether making competitive claims or, much more regularly, filtering your own brand’s products and/or corporate behavior to give a particular slant or angle more attention than it deserves. Just remember what BP did to itself with its “Beyond Petroleum” branding that found proof of a minuscule investment in alternate energy and pushed it to front of its marketing and advertising. The advertising was true, at least defensibly from the perspective of any involved regulators, but it wasn’t really truthful. In the corporate world we call it “educating consumers,” and in social media it’s “participating in the conversation.” Politically, it’s revealed for what it really is: An insult to our intelligence.

Association: Another backbone of advertising is to position something near your product — either by overt reference, or even simply placed physically next to it in a picture or video — and, in doing so, suggest they’re connected. That’s why positioned behind both Obama and Romney there are always 1) smiling, multiracial people, and 2) American flags. Romney images in Obama ads are sweaty and troubled, as are Obama images in Romney spots. The ads encourage viewers to make vague, indirect associations: Romney isn’t to be trusted because he’s rich, and Obama can’t be trusted because he’s black.

Commercial brands have been doing this to themselves for years, mostly in trying to claim positive associations. McDonald’s is good for you because it sponsors the Olympics, and Oscar Meyer sandwich meat is good because smiling happy families eat it in front of the camera. Apple is hip because the Genius Bar guy in its spots is a wryly aware Generation Yer. The claims aren’t explicit or necessarily provable (i.e. hipness), so they’re truthful in that their falsehood can’t be declared. But everyone knows those politicians aren’t telling the whole story in their ads. We know the same thing about those consumer brands, too.

Absence: Perhaps the most insidious and oft-used strategies in regard to truth in advertising is to simply ignore it entirely. Many ads have no problem declaring that Obama raised taxes (he didn’t), or that the Federal stimulus failed (also a lie). Ditto on Democratic attack ads that allege Romney sent jobs overseas (not true). Both campaigns support these falsehoods with their comments to journalists and bloggers, as if the old totalitarian idea of repeating a lie enough times will make it believable could work. It just might, actually.

The other way truth is absent from political ads is when campaigns set up strawmen to attack — usually some hazy, undefined idea of “liberals” or “Tea Partiers” — to then cast their own positions in contrast. Both parties seem to have self-appointed themselves representatives of “Americans,” whoever they are.

It’s always been harder for commercial ads to overtly lie, but the strawman approach has been standard for many decades. Brand X is so-and-so…whether it really is or not, or the allegation is simply couched with the phrase “some people believe” — or our brand is X in comparison to Y (just think of those Apple “I’m a Mac” ads that told us all about Microsoft). “We try harder” from Avis was pure strawman strategy. It’s also common for ads to skip truth entirely, which is why we see so much sex and humor used to sell pretty much any product you could name. Voters’ reaction to the political arguments is to feel incomplete and somewhat soiled by the experience. Consumers have learned to tune it out, mostly.

We’ll have a new President-elect in early November, and the once-warring campaigns and their minions will be paying the $1 billion spent for the advertising that promoted rarified angles, made unsupportable associations, and otherwise ignored truth entirely. The ad business will be worse off for it, as we will have allowed people to get further reminded how poorly, insidiously, and wastefully advertising can be.

And then we can wonder again why nobody believes what politicians or corporations say anymore.

Image via flickr

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