The Most Interesting Dilemma in the Ad Industry

How much of a hard sell will today’s consumers tolerate from brands?
I read recently where Dos Equis decided to leave its longtime agency, the one who created the “The Most Interesting Man In the World” campaign. One of the points related in the story was the notion that back when the campaign was first presented, the client was quite nervous about the signature line, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”
Why? Because for the client, it’d be heresy to publicly admit some people won’t use their product or service to the exclusivity of anything else. Most clients are that way.
So when is being honest in advertising too honest? Is there a way to humblebrag our way to brand success? Or is the modern marketing and business world too cutthroat to admit any weakness?
Thinking about the Dos Equis ad, I’m reminded of ‘60s-era San Francisco adman Howard Gossage, who once wrote an all-type ad for Fina gas stations with a blaring headline that read, “IF YOU’RE DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD AND YOU SEE A FINA STATION AND IT’S ON YOUR SIDE SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO MAKE A U-TURN THOUGH TRAFFIC AND THERE AREN’T SIX CARS WAITING AND YOU NEED GAS OR SOMETHING PLEASE STOP IN.”
It’s a sales appeal that’s disarmingly honest, charming, and self-effacing. And since Gossage never got rich and famous in his lifetime doing work like that, it’s an advertising approach that’s clearly been an anomaly through the years.
But there’s a human truth encapsulated in both ads: Even the most brand loyal consumers are cheaters sometimes. In other words, they’re human.
And that’s the flaw in the heart of the supposed “customer journey” marketing people love to believe all customers are on. The journey takes a lot of detours and U-turns. Sometimes it’s full of quicksand. And sometimes, there’s an actual sale along the way. It rarely goes exactly as it’s mapped out in so many PowerPoint decks.
Marketers are rightfully biased to favor their own products. But this blinds them to consumer reality. One time, I worked on homebuilder account — a manufacturer of large-scale exurban subdivisions. The homes were truly cookie-cutter, but our client was aghast at the suggestion that someone would actually choose not to purchase one of their homes right on the spot. Thus, the advertising campaign she wanted bore no resemblance to the experience most first-time homebuyers have.
It’s a delicate dance. The “hard sell” of putting your product or service at the center of everything still works in many cases. But it’s a turnoff to many consumers and it’s particularly nauseating to most creatives.
Still, you can’t increase sales by osmosis. Likes, loves, and affinity can contribute to a brand’s success but too many brands have made it the endgame of their marketing efforts. Marketers need to keep giving people a reason to come back and buy. All the while knowing anything — a bad product, bad service, bad atmosphere, bad experience — could put someone off forever.
I wish more advertisers would choose to endear themselves by being more honest and humble in their messaging. No one product or brand is likely to be someone’s personal salvation. At the same time, there’s a place for many brands in people’s shopping carts. We have to acknowledge and appreciate that consumers make a choice, and do everything to ensure they believe they made a good one.
No matter how much data we have at our disposal, in the end, all marketers and advertisers have to make choices about how they market their products and services. Arbitrary, emotional, uncertain choices. And just like the Dos Equis campaign showed us, admitting the truth about our clients, their products, and their customers sometimes seems like the riskiest approach of all. Especially if it calls for a little extra humor or humility in the message.
We should take that kind of chance more often. That would make the advertising industry the most interesting it’s been in a long time.