Truth in Advertising / Advertising the Truth

[December 30, 2010]

Lately, I’ve been struck by the vast complex of assumptions, theories, myths, belief systems, studies statistics, practices, disciplines and unadulterated horse-trading that goes into the production of everything we may loosely or strictly call “an ad.”

OK, I realize there are now entire schools of thought whose sole purpose is to posit that social media marketing and its PR offshoots are not advertising. But for my purposes, I’m going to just sweep everything with the same intent into one big pile.

Because that one unifying intent is motivation. The only reason brands contact consumers in any medium is to get them to take an action. The approach might be indirect, it might be conceived as part of a long-range strategy, it might not mention price points or features or benefits or sweepstakes or a free ballpoint pen refrigerator magnet [Your Logo Here]. But the goal is the same.

A simple goal, really. And that’s what started me wondering at the physical and intellectual gadgetry that has accreted around that goal over the last century—to make something somewhat less prized than the pearl secreted by an oyster, around a grain of sand.

Impact by association.
Many of these gadgets, whether it’s a free magnet, a BOGO offer, a hotel upgrade, a sweepstakes or a chance to “share your story with people like you”—grow out of the need to differentiate products that are essentially the same. Other, nominally more sophisticated, gadgets have been developed to associate particular products with emotions, cultural values, physical or psychological thrills.

That’s associate, not create. When advertising of any kind works, it’s not because it creates a demand, it’s because it successfully mirrors one. Of course, it helps if the product itself actually fulfills that demand and, as I see it, that’s where the bad blood begins flowing.

Because clearly, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of gadgetry needed and the actual value of the product, let alone of the brand itself. I need only think of the extremes Gillette has gone to differentiate its razors. “The Best a Man Can Get?” Looking at myself in the mirror every morning, I’m pretty sure that campaign’s brand promise is way beyond the capacity of any disposable razor. That is, unless the handle contains a cashier’s check for 750 million dollars—or an all-powerful genie.

The perils of parity.
But what’s a manufacturer to do, when its product is as parity as water is wet? Can anyone reasonably suggest there’s a better way to move slivers of stainless steel encased in plastic?

Well, what if you just told the truth? You’d start by admitting your brand is only a silly millimeter better or worse than any other name brand product in the same category (not that this simple truth, as a concept, isn’t also subject to exploitation). You’d continue by addressing the product’s place in everyday life, but not necessarily on their Facebook page.

Your appeal to your audience might revolve around the percent of your profits that go, not towards a CEO’s offshore account, but towards developing a real, viable, global recycling system for, in this case, spent metal blades and cracked plastic handles.

You’d be selling, in other words, not what you make, but who you are.

Can’t handle the truth? Give us a chance to try.
Of course, selling that socially responsible persona means being that socially responsible persona. By the same token, soft drink manufacturers would do a lot better to actually lower the sugar contents of their fizzy bottles than “support access to exercise, physical activity and nutritional education programs, programs that motivate behavior modification, and programs that encourage lifestyle/behavioral changes.”

Because, chances are, any expert on nutritional education will tell you that ingesting 10 teaspoons of sugar in one sitting is never a healthy lifestyle choice.

The best way to sell an established product to an media drenched America, a country where, we’re told,everyone’s wise to advertising trickery? Produce a product that promotes health, demonstrate that your manufacturing practices contribute to sustainability and show us all the ways your profits go toward making real life more fulfilling for more people.

Do that, and you won’t need to make the risible assertion that a razor is “like having an angel by your side.” You’ll simply need to tell the truth.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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