Advertising is a funny business
It’s an industry that’s reviled by many, for ‘forcing’ people to spend their money on things they don’t actually need. It’s an industry steeped in notoriety — the late nights, the abusive culture, the strange obsession behind awards that really don’t matter outside of our extremely insular world. But speak to people from advertising, and they talk about why what they do matters. It matters because we understand people. Because we are steeped in culture. Because we are rooted in reality.
So that sounds like advertising is all about the truth. Not really.
What happens when the truth isn’t sexy enough? We embellish it. We fill in the gaps that never really needed filling in. We create our own convenient version of the truth to make our creativity seem more purposeful and more relevant in today’s world. That’s why we still have shampoo ads that, in their quest to sell more shampoo, start talking about women empowerment.
Has anyone ever bought a shampoo to feel like they could conquer the world?
A few years ago, I was being interviewed as a potential target audience for a sanitary napkin brand. The questionnaire was biased and leading, to the point where I was eventually asked ‘How does your sanitary napkin support you emotionally?’ It doesn’t. It collects my blood, as it should, and that is all I would want it to do.
But when we start filling in the gaps that don’t really exist, we arrive at a really inane version of ‘truth’:
Perhaps… Women feel emotionally supported by their sanitary napkins because the collection of their monthly bleed is symbolic of them shedding the societal shackles that bind them. And their sanitary napkins are their sole partner in their crusade to show the world who they really are.
Effective advertising should deliver against its objectives, and objectives are rooted in truth. So in order to create advertising that works, we need to ensure that the voices of our consumers are represented. Their truths. I, for one, want their truths no embellishments, no gap-filling — to be conveyed in a story. I want their story to be told so that the brand can develop a better relationship with their customers. I say that I want to do that, and I think it should be easy. But my goodness, it’s been such a challenge trying to just tell the truth.
If we take a look at the people around us, we’ll realise that society has a deep desire to conform. Those who strive to be different are met with so much resistance that many eventually buckle under the pressure and give in. They start to ensure that their truths aren’t just sexy or bold enough, but they’re also ‘award-winning’ enough.
When working for a leading fruit producer on a new campaign to increase consumption of bananas, I have witnessed ad people try to get clients to believe that consumers choose to consume bananas because of the poetry it embodies. Not that consumers think bananas are yummy or healthy or just convenient to carry around — but that it is because consumers somehow all agree that the banana is the most poetic fruit in this world.
Was it derived from a research study? No, it was derived from a need to sound smarter than we actually are.
That’s the main problem with advertising. We can’t seem to be content with the fact that we aren’t saving lives. We aren’t changing the world. We’re in the business of selling.
The best salesmen aren’t the ones who make the quickest sales; the best salesmen are those who get customers to keep buying more and more from them over time. The former can rely on gimmicks — or untruths — but the latter can only rely on truth. Because truth leads to trust. But unfortunately, trying to be truthful is extremely painful. It’s isolating, when you try to rely on the truth but are surrounded by those who just want to sound smart or creative — or ‘award-winning’ (I say this with a shudder).
Mad Men, the show that many love to reference as their inspiration for joining the industry, was a great believer in showcasing the importance of understanding what makes people tick. That’s the truth, in a way. Don Draper said ‘Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness.’ He’s not saying advertising can create happiness; he’s saying we need to have an understanding of the truth behind what makes people happy.
I’ve talked about how if the truth isn’t sexy enough, we embellish it. We make things up. We do so to make creativity more convenient.
What would make us more powerful in our creativity is if we really focused on the so-called unsexy truths and tried to make something sexy out of it. Perhaps that’s what true creativity is. And that’s why the truth is so important to our industry. One of my favourite examples of an unsexy truth that was used to create a truly creative campaign of Old Spice, done amazingly by Wieden+Kennedy.
The unsexy truth: men don’t actually care about body wash. (How many of us know men — or are men — who use whatever soap they can find and apply it everywhere?) It’s the women who buy body wash for the men in their lives.
The sexy creative solution: what if we could tap into the desires and imaginations of these very women, and tell them that your man could smell, well, sexy? And that’s what led to The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. My only wish is for our industry to embrace truth more: the more boring and drab they are, the better. Because that’s what our lives are all about, whether we like it or not. Our lives are built upon boring truths that we don’t often think about. Therein lies the opportunity to inject something interesting into them.
And that’s how we can make advertising fun again — and stop making it seem like we’re more intelligent or important than we actually are.
Featured image: Mike Dorner / Unsplash