24
Feb
13

Reality Advertising

Considering how important marketing and advertising are to the American economy and, like it or not, American culture, you might expect it to be treated with great respect—at least by its practitioners. But judging from the persistence of tired, mechanical marketing gambits, you’d think the promotion of products and services in this country was merely a necessary evil, something to “get out of the way” as quickly as possible.

How else to explain the widespread deployment of campaign materials based on oft-repeated phrases dating back to the dawn of modern consumer society, as documented on 2-23-13:

save up to (1,390,000,000 results)
hurry while supplies last (130,000 results)
limited time offer (11,500,000 results)
like you’ve never seen it before (11,500,000 results)
just got better (152,000,000 results)
don’t take our word for it (12,300,000 results)
sale-a-thon (9,700 results)
back to school savings (1,320,000 results)

Each of these phrases, in its own way, is highly manipulative, intended to excite, incite, motivate and generally strike terror in the heart of consumers—that they might miss something spec-ta-cu-lar! Clearly, the main reason these phrases are repeated is that they can offer marketers a quick fix of success. After all, in the short term, consumers can be motivated by fear. The question is whether the short term gains are worth the resentment such tactics potentially instill, once Anxiety’s adrenaline rush fades.

Words matter? Since when?
On the other hand, in a marketing environment increasingly driven by data analysis do words still matter?

Well, yeah.

After all, what’s the point of worming your way into your customers’ psyches and matching your appeals to their stated or implied preferences, only to wreck the illusion of honest communication with an objectifying sales pitch? Think about it. If you were up close and personal with someone you were crazy about, you’d never think to whisper, “Act now, while supplies last.”

In fact, I harbor the heretical view that the more intimately you attempt to connect with your audience, the more sensitive you must be to nuances of language. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the presence or absence of Urban Dictionary-sanctioned diction. What I advocate is plain-spoken communication—minus the benefit grubbing (a must for the holidays), anxiety churning (you won’t want to miss) and outright bullying (Don’t wait, call today!).

Turning people into “consumers.”
Sadly, this dysfunctional mode of address appears to be hard-wired into the American marketing mentality. Worse, it stems from superstition—the unfounded belief that everyday people turn into a different species the moment they become consumers.

How absurd is that? No matter what you’re selling, consumers are human beings. They’re the people at the next table, the people in the produce aisle, the people who cut you off on the freeway, the parkway and the turnpike. Some of them are people you actually like.

Yet the habit of talking to people as if they were utterly devoid of feeling, experience or, OMG, intellect is so persistent I wonder how any business is done at all. Sure, at the end of the day, people buy because they just need stuff. But if that’s what you’re counting on, it’s hard to see why we need marketing at all.

Of course, none of this matters unless you truly believe data mining leads to an unassailable analysis of the human psyche—a conclusion the current state of artificial intelligence belies. Yet, if we’re to believe the blistering assessment of major brands made by consumers in social space, it’s hard to conclude the data-miners aren’t on to something.

But if there is a message from consumers hidden in the data, it needs to be teased out by creatives with the skill to actually interpret language. For that you’ll need people with more than just a way with words, a warm body and a good vocabulary they never get to use.

You’ll also need a creative team able to put themselves in the mindset of the people around them starting, ironically, with the people they meet in the mirror. Of course, such an approach will feel revolutionary to a wide majority of your colleagues. To sell it in, you may need a tagline—something like, oh, Reality Advertising.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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