Advertising Doesn't Have To Deceive The Customer

There are rules to make sure that advertising is truthful. If you make a fake claim or say something untrue in your advertising, more than likely it will, quite rightly, be banned.

You can't say this car will go 200 miles per hour, if it can't. And you can't say this chocolate bar is good for you, if it isn't. This is a good thing I think we can all agree.

So let's put that to one side for minute. What I'm concerned with is the other kind of deception employed every day in the advertising all around us.

That deception is lack of truth, lack of honesty.

Advertisers and agencies are obsessed with not talking about the thing that is the subject of the advertising.

And that's in spite of the impressive history of advertising that is based on the truth of products, for example, the original Beetle campaign, 90's Guinness advertising, the original Avis campaign (and the Hertz campaign that went up against it) just off the top of my head. Great advertising.

Clearly there is great potential in starting with the product and the reality of it, and how people use it, choose it, what their relationship with it is.

But too much contemporary advertising chooses to ignore the truth, and build entire approaches on avoiding it..

Why talk about you product when you can use your advertising for some unrelated social crusade - deception.

Why talk about the product when you can just do some ads with dancing animals, singing babies or a combination of both, in the hope it will make people like you. Deception.

Advertising has become an exercise in avoiding the subject. If were a person it would be a bad politician on Question Time.

Like many current politicians, agencies and marketers seem more concerned about the facile, about a thin facade of image, rather than anything of substance.

So little advertising out there in the real world seems to have anything of substance, truth or relevance to say.

Agencies have jumped on the revelation that humans make largely emotional decisions, and they have largely decided that that gives them licence to make advertising devoid of any point or truth.

They are confusing cause and effect. Just because you put an emotional story or message in your ad does not mean the consumer will feel emotional about you or your product. And it does not follow from that that when making an instinctive decision, the customer will choose you.

What this research tells us is that people tend to make instinctive decisions - they don't process competing facts in every decision. But that doesn't mean that facts or rational points play no part in leading up to that instinctive decision.

For example, someone may want a Mercedes over an Audi because of some hard to define feeling about the message of success or status that it might convey about them to others. But that notion has been built up over years of input, not just through advertising, but everything in life. The people they've seen driving a Mercedes, films, TV, friends. Why do the people who influence what you think about a Mercedes, drive a Mercedes? Why did they choose a Mercedes in the first place? What has, over the years, contributed to Mercedes having attained this status in the minds of many people?

Ad people and marketers are not asking the right questions.

They are just pushing emotional messages and emotional decisions together, because they both have the word emotion in them.

In their current approaches, ad agency people and clients are largely conflating three things that are in all probability not related here; an emerging understanding of human decision-making, their own desire to make advertising that feels more 'clever' and less salesy, and a mistaken notion that people's purchase behaviour is based on attitudes towards brands.

This is the current confusion of cause and effect. It's right old mess, to put it mildly.

And it's leading to more and more of this facile, and in many ways, deceitful, advertising.

But, the thing that people in the business always seem to forget is that people are smarter than you think.

They know when they're being patronised. They know when a brand is being disingenuous. They know when a brand is being facile and avoiding saying anything of substance. They know when an ad makes no sense, and has no point.

People are smart.

If advertising people and marketers were a bit smarter themselves, they might remember that advertising based on truth is pretty powerful stuff.


  1. Great post, as always. And even greater because it feels like I can Contribute to the Discussion.

    I fully agree that dancing around the product they're meant to be advertising is a cardinal agency sin. But the other cardinal sin that goes hand in hand with this is surely creative department laziness.

    Andrew Nicholls (the American TV comedy writer) had a section in his book "Valuable Lessons" decrying the phenomenon of "Very Special Episodes."

    What made it stick in my mind was that he didn't just focus on the tonal whiplash these things create. He made it clear that they do a disservice both to the issues and to the comedy.

    It's remarkably easy for a freshman writer to move people with drug abuse or a terminal illness or whatever. It's much harder to tell funny jokes that make people laugh.

    Similarly, it's much easier to tug someone's heart strings with a campaign to save injured ducklings or whatever than it is to convince them to buy Brand Y Mouthwash over Brand X Mouthwash. Everyone wants to do cancer charities because they automatically give you something emotionally arresting to play with. Nobody wants to do the things where you have to make it yourself.

    And the really bad thing is that we reward agencies, creatives, and creative directors for this kind of insipid sleaze. Every time I see a campaign like this on TV, I know that a creative team either couldn't be bothered to fight hard enough, or willingly sacrificed their integrity.

    To quote the afforementioned Nicholls: "If Laurel and Hardy needed an ending to a bit where they progressively destroyed each other’s cars they didn’t punk out and say that Stan’s sister had Parkinson’s. They thought of a JOKE."

  2. You mean like this absolute drivel?

  3. Here's something - would agencies be okay if post pitch they were told the Marketing Director had made a purely emotional decision so feed back was pointless really? Don't agencies ask for reasons why they e'rent chosen?

    Anyway, great post as always.