Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Real Future of Advertising

For too long, the ad industry has relied on their audience to be idiotic. The fashion brand Diesel doesn't mince words. It tells us directly: "Be Stupid."


Are we really dumb? Or is Diesel just smartly confronting us with our intelligence, and then telling us to let go? More on that in a bit.


But first: How pliable are consumers, still? Do we carelessly absorb marketing messages the same way Silly Putty picks up the ink from a cartoon book?


Clearly, marketers think so, or want to. It's hard to understand, since social media is so mainstream now, and everything is on Twitter in about five seconds. They know Wikileaks is coming for them, and yet they still embrace terms like "neuromarketing."


The fact of the matter is, despite all the talk about "engaging the bloggers," marketers continue to put the reputation of the industry at risk by doing things to purposefully deceive and confuse the customer. They flood people with enticing images and create a peer-pressure effect to try and induce initial and repeated purchases.


If they can't bring the customer in, and if they can't co-opt the social media, they will simply ignore or shun the critics – people who analyze their activities and provide the customer with another point of view, with research and facts that don't conform to the idealized image. Just a few examples from the daily deluge:


·         Deception: Remember Papa John's tagline, "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza"? Marketing B.S. (Which led to a famous lawsuit by Pizza Hut, which Papa John's won – a completely puzzling outcome. Why pay for this tagline if it doesn't influence customer behavior?)

·         Neuromarketing: Put a baby in an ad. Watch product sell. Enough said.

·         Confusion: McDonald's smoothie ads proudly proclaim they have "real fruit". That is true. But what they don't tell you is that the fruit, combined with the added sugar, adds up. There are 70 grams of sugar in a large McDonald's strawberry-banana smoothie. Will you be healthier after drinking it, or climbing the walls?

·         Brainwashing: A sociological study once showed that if you put a law-abiding citizen into jail and into jail clothing, within 2 days they will act like a hardened criminal. Similarly, if you expose a normal pre-teen girl to "kid-oriented" television shows pushing makeup, sexy clothes, and fast food – either eaten by the show's characters or on the commercials that play during the breaks – guess what? That girl will want to eat McNuggets and wear makeup and adult-looking clothing. And she'll want it more if she sees those images repeated in magazines, on billboards, and promoted by her circle of susceptible peers.

·         Shunning: Have you ever noticed that people who take a strong, public stand in favor of consumers and natural solutions, and against deceptive marketing practices, are treated by the mainstream as "extremists" or "weirdos"? If you have ever seen anyone suffering from cancer or a degenerative disease, think about whether you want to trust marketers with your health or someone who has comparably far less to gain. A single crusader might need to sell a book or a line of products in order to eat. But a huge conglomerate, and its associated huge ad agency, needs to move millions and even billions of product in order to hit their sales targets.


It's interesting. I remember recently that I had to discard a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke (I hadn't drunk from it, because the last time I started drinking Diet Cherry Coke I got major sugar cravings that lasted all night.) I watched the brown liquid as it seemed to ooze down the sink drain. At the time, I thought to myself, "Can you believe that people regularly put this into their bodies?"


Shortly after I saw an ad for Diet Coke at a bus stop: It said I would "be extraordinary" by drinking it. Extraordinarily what?


But then, I know Coca-Cola has something intelligent in mind, because they have a place where they study how people shop (source: recent CNBC special on the company). So they must do enough mystery shopping, competitive intelligence, and focus groups to know that that particular tagline will set people's brain cells ringing. Even as the fake sugar in the soda does…what to people's brains?


Anyway, my point is that people are not really stupid. That is why the Diesel campaign is so smart. I imagine they understand that people gain hard-won intelligence by dealing with things like: birth defects, disabilities, parents, two decades of school, bullies, bosses, friends, enemies, getting fired, starting a business, bankruptcy, buying a home, foreclosure, real estate, divorce, the loss of a loved one, jail, addiction, natural disasters, terrorism, violence, car accidents, doctors, illness, aging and more.


So Diesel pokes fun at all that. The company says, relax a bit. Buy our clothes and be stupid for awhile.


Many other ads are not that smart, or self-aware. They truly think they can brainwash people.


In the past this approach may have worked. Primarily because the world is so complex that people have relied on major social institutions to tell them what to do. On trustworthy brands to help "guide" their decisions. Otherwise life can easily become unlivable with all the choices one must make.


However, in 2011 this isn't going to work. You can't tell anyone what to think or what to do. You can trick them, true, but only for a short time, before they find out and get so angry that they do not listen to you anymore. Even if the telling is in the form of an ad, which really seeks to engage people in the "brand story," it is critical to walk the fine line that says, "here's the honest truth, I invite you in to make the choice."


Look at the recent ads for Johnson & Johnson, where they talk about being transparent about ingredients. About giving people information about the products so that they can make an informed choice. That's what I'm talking about.


Maybe J&J is looking at marketing research that bears my supposition out. If you want proof of modern cynicism, just look around. We see it not only in the total non-response that ads get, and in the cynicism of the modern workplace, but also in the realms of politics, the media, and even religious institutions. People trust each other, not the "system" and not even charismatic leaders. That's why brands stand on such shaky ground.


The system started to fall apart with the rise of mass media. It accelerated with the explosive growth of the Internet and social media. Suddenly no one was in control. The same scandals kept happening as before, but now it is exponentially more difficult to hide misbehavior. Sexual abuse of children in the religious community is a good example. If you can't trust people who wear the mantle of G-d, then really, what is left?


At the same time, people are a lot less bound by social convention than they were in the past. They don't care about authority. For one thing, they haven't been able to count on their parents – the huge divorce rate is Exhibit 1. Their jobs are not secure either, and even if they follow the rules and go to school they can't count on having a job in the future. They rely on their friends and not their parents for their social norms. Facebook has taken convenient advantage of this fact. And your friends can change a lot more fluidly than your family and its traditional values can.


Facebook also introduced to us the new "morality" of the Internet age, which is that any privacy is inherently bad and reflects a certain amount of hypocrisy. If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't need any privacy at all, right?


Wikileaks, in the form of Julian Assange, preaches from the same song sheet. Enabling the pilferers of secret information, he says, "Look how much corruption there is going on behind your back. I'm the good guy, keeping everyone moral, keeping markets free."


He says, too: Don't mistreat your employees, because they will shine the light on everything you've done wrong.


And you know what? Call him what you will – accuse him of causing irreparable harm and you may be justified – but Assange has a large audience and probably many peers who are poised to do the same thing as he has done, if given the chance.


I completely disagree with destroying the possibility of privacy. I am frightened at what could happen if people started recklessly dumping everyone's private information out into the public space. But what I think and feel are separate from applying one's judgment to assess the mood of the moment. And my assessment is that Wikileaks and Facebook are squarely in the middle of it. To cope successfully, every single company and institution must prepare to get transparent immediately. Radically so. Or they face serious, serious danger.


The process of laying it all out there is undoubtedly painful, especially if you're not used to it. But once that's done – once nobody can hold over you a skeleton in the closet – you are poised to renew your relationship with your audience on more adult, more honest footing.


The basis of the new marketing relationship is that you are giving people a choice. You tell them who you are and what you're made of, and you say: It's up to you.


You say: Knowing what my company or my leadership style is all about, here is how my offering can satisfy your physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. You attempt to move beyond physical need quickly – because it is easily commoditized - to win consumers where it really counts - in their hearts, social circles, and connection to the eternal. You let them, essentially, vote with their pocketbooks. And you don't cheat them out of money they don't need to spend.


So the marketer of the future will be able to answer 4 questions:


1. Cost-benefit analysis: What is this going to do for me? Can I believe the claims? What are the risks? Is there a cheaper, equivalent alternative? If so, why should I buy from you?


2. Emotional need: Should I buy/accept this, even if it's not the most logical choice, just because I like the way it makes me feel?


3. Social need: Will buying/accepting this make me feel included as part of a community?


4. Spiritual need: Was the product sourced and made ethically? Will buying/accepting this bring me closer to a higher goal?


Although it may seem that people are really bent on surviving first and then feeling, making friends and connecting to G-d later, it's exactly the opposite: We are all connected to the eternal, the spiritual, the life that comes before and after this physical existence. Eternal life is more vital than this physical plane. We don't worry about survival needs unless we have to.


All of this is why Fast Company's recent article on the future of advertising was only partially right. Selling is not about learning to code HTML or finding new and more annoying ways to intrude on the customer's life. (As if a more sophisticated banner ad is any less obnoxious than the old-fashioned kind). It's not about "targeting" people by secretly tracking them online. It is about good old-fashioned integrity, coupled with insight: Delivering something of value, and then wrapping it in an evolving, appealing story.


As Barry Diller recently told the Wall Street Journal (see the most recent issue of WSJ magazine), it's more valuable to have one liberal arts-educated person on your staff than a million techies. This is because the future is about doing what's right, understanding the customer, connecting with them, and helping them to grow.


Value, transparency, decency, fun, connection and spirituality—that is where I think consumers want to be. Me included.