Lies, Damned Lies and Bears on Bicycles

February 8, 2009 at 2:40 am Leave a comment

(This was originally published in the February 27, 2006 edition of Adweek with the title “Lies and Entertainment.”)

People don’t lie more than they used to. Lies have just become better at propagating themselves. Before the internet, people said, “don’t believe everything you read.” Today people—at least the ones who are paying attention—say, “don’t believe anything you read.” I tend to agree with them.

That’s because the internet has democratized mass communication and, in so doing, obliterated any reasonable assumption of authorial integrity. Anyone can publish opinions, “facts” or outright lies on the internet, and if he wishes, he can do it anonymously. This is exactly how former Robert Kennedy aide John Siegenthaler was slandered on wikipedia.com, which shamefully identified him as a suspect in conspiracies to assassinate both JFK and RFK, despite the absence of a thimbleful of evidence. Technology has made concepts like accuracy and accountability almost quaint. Consumers understand this better than most advertising agencies.

So what does this mean for brands? For starters, it means that it has become exponentially more difficult to persuade consumers that your brand offers a genuine benefit. Consumers are predisposed not to believe you. Even old-fashioned product demonstration ads are suspect in an age where we can conjure up a convincing 50-foot gorilla, given the right software and a satisfactory number of terabytes.

It also means that selling has become a much more indirect process. Since consumers probably won’t believe product claims, more and more brands—particularly in their online communications—are making a strategic decision to be liked rather than believed (at least initially—more on that in a moment).

People mired in the 1960s’ view of how advertising works–and there are still a lot of them–absolutely hate this. It incites them to spew Bill Bernbach quotations about how our job is to “kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product,” then fire off memos demanding the traitors who put entertainment ahead of tangible product benefits be compelled to use separate drinking fountains.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Bill Bernbach and his pithy sayings, but there is neither dishonesty nor shallowness in making an initial choice to be liked rather than believed. Quite the contrary, it actually demonstrates a shrewd and subtle understanding of what media in the 21st century do well.

Electronic media, including the internet, have conditioned consumers to expect to be entertained. In fact, the media are so good at entertaining us that they have transformed virtually every facet of our society into a form of entertainment. Politics, for example. I submit into evidence Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the current candidacy of Kinky Friedman for the governorship of Texas. I also recommend you read an astonishing book called Amusing Ourselves To Death by the late Neil Postman. The prosecution rests, then smugly puts its feet up on the table.

The theory behind pushing entertainment to the forefront of marketing is simple.
In an era when consumers doubt all brand claims, they decide among brands based upon a different criterion—likeability. If consumers like your brand, they’ll probably buy your product instead of the product of a competitor who hasn’t made them smile. If the product they buy performs well (or if it doesn’t), the consumer may mention it in his blog or in an email to co-workers or when he is text messaging his friends. It’s a tortuous path, and it involves far more uncertainty than the old Bernbachian fastball down the middle. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. It’s simply the way it is and the way it will be.

In light of this radical shift in the relationship between media and consumers, there is a way to keep your online marketing out of the ditch whether you work for an agency or a client. Just remember five things:

1. No one believes your product claims just because you’re a global brand. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons they don’t believe you.

2. You are not a trusted source for information. Your consumer’s friends are.

3. Consumers don’t come to your website by accident. Don’t beat them down with an ad when they get there.

4. Consumers don’t come to your website because they want you to sell them something (but sometimes they come because they want to buy something, which is very different).

5. Consumers do come to your web site because they expect to get something of value in exchange for their time.

The “something of value” they’re looking for is usually entertainment. Something that makes them smile. Something that makes them feel good. Something they can forward to their friends. Certain products and services are exceptions to this quest for entertainment, of course. Amnesty International comes to mind. However, as long as you’re not working on that account or something similar, you’re probably better off forgetting about the old way of selling. Send in the bears on bicycles.

© Scott Johnson, 2006

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Entry filed under: Advertising and Marketing. Tags: , , .

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