Are we trying to trick people?

This is the subject of the email I sent myself with a print screen of the following tweeted quote “Creatively, I want our work to be so resonant that it feels like it’s come from within culture, rather than an observation from a research report”. I’m not really sure who said this, I saw it retweeted several times and TBH the point I am trying to make is not about who said what but how we think about how we make advertising.

Why did I react with that email subject? Without trying to over-interpret or second guess myself over what the person “actually meant”, this quote is not saying something new. Since I started in advertising land, over 15 years ago this was a mantra. We wanted ads not to look like ads. We looked up to United Colors of Benetton who had enraged the Vatican with their billboards which looked more like political commentary than anything else. Everyone wanted to make stuff that was more like culture than advertising.

Why this is the case is not something that concerns me because I suspect the reasoning behind is quite basic. For one, we have grown to believe that people hate advertising, find it irritating, so we need to tell them what we want to tell them in ways which are not advertising-like. That comes with a sub set of other considerations, all, again, based more on assumption than actual data, or on old data IMHO. There’s the “people trust things that feel authentic” and something that’s trying to sell you a thing cannot be authentic (this BTW, is also why we fall for influencers :). Then there is the “people have learned to tune out advertising so we need to jar their attention with stuff that mimics what they want to see”. And finally, the more recent “brands need to have a purpose beyond that of selling stuff to connect with the new generation”. I am dubious about all of these things but that’s not the point.

What concerns me is how to reconcile our desire to make things that do not look like ads with the need to persuade people to buy stuff. “Are we trying to trick people?”, to quote myself.

I have been following the way the Facebook “fake news” story has been rolled out and one thing stuck: whoever was behind the “fake news” and whatever the “fake news” was, it was really meant to persuade people of something by appearing like “culture”. Those people behind the “fake news” accounts, created promoted posts which told stories that were untrue in order to sway how people felt about a certain topic. This is the case with the Presidential elections but it’s also the case with the Antivax movement. So, you make something that looks like “culture”, ie. news, so that you can persuade people to change their mind. Sounds familiar right?

A while back a graph was circulating on Twitter showing how much people liked ads in contrast to the shows these ads were placed in. I had now idea such a research had been carried out since the 80s and it seems there was a “golden age” when people actually liked ads. Not as much as the shows, of course, but enough. Naturally, that’s getting worse. Today everybody hates them and maybe that’s why we try very hard to camouflage them.

What went wrong? Here’s some thoughts : number of ads, frequency of ads, lack of targeting (oh, no, I said the bad word!), and yes, ads that really did not try at all. But you see how, before we need to start pretending that ads should not be ads in order to work, maybe there’s other things to consider.

Maybe we get good at negative retargeting. Mahabi’s is a company that built a reputation for either employing the worst media agency in the world or being completely careless with their money, so bad was their online targeting, with ads following everyone around at all times. There are so many simple fixes for that. The tech is there. That was human error.

Maybe we “respect the attention we’ve been given” like Russell Davies says. There’s only this many fridges you need in a lifetime, keep a proper customer cycle view and you won’t need to advertise your fridge to everyone at all times.

Maybe we start thinking of longer life for our products so you don’t need to advertise them all the time.

Okay, that last one is utopia.

What I’m wondering here is do we really need to pretend like our ads are not ads in order to make them work? Think about it.