The argument for advertising is compelling. It gives information. It increases competition. It creates awareness of alternatives and brands. It creates brands that people aspire to and therefore drives consumerism which is good for the economy.
Today the same arguments against advertising are equally if not more compelling. It gives misinformation. It tries to replace awareness by subtle messages targeting consumer’s fears, insecurities and self worth, especially kids. It actually tries to decrease competition. It drives a false consumerism that is environmentally unsustainable, especially on issues like water etc.
The truth lies somewhere in between. But increasingly the consumer and communities are beginning to doubt the intentions of the advertiser. While the advertising professional is getting better at selling his/her product, they are doing a terrible job of selling themselves as people working honestly towards the good of the community they claim to serve. And in doing so they are serving their clients badly.
As the world becomes increasingly competitive, and quarterly results and stock market valuations drive corporations towards profitability at all cost, consumers and advertisers are moving dangerously apart. And the loss will be completely the advertisers if they continue to do so.
Much of the reason is Social media. Advertising usually looks deeply into the mind of a single consumer and creates within him/her a desire to buy a product. All advertising affects the community of course, but it is believed that ‘chatter’ will come slower and later. Rarely has advertising reached out to large communities unless they are public service ads. Of which they are many great ones. The advertising professional is just not trained for dealing with the size of communities being created by Social Media, and certainly not the speed at which they relate/share/chatter with each other. Before they realize it, the message has spread and could turn negative even as the initial Media Buy has not played itself out.
A great case of community creation is the Apple Brand. Of course the product is great (I’m a fan) , but it created a cultural following that allows it to put great premium on its product and thereby become the most valuable companies in the world. So much that the founder Steve Jobs became a cultural icon. Comparable only to Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory !
However culture is very very sensitive to change. Which explains why Apple was so quick to explain/redress the news that the Apple brand was being supported by malpractices in use of Chinese labor. Social Media opinion can turn a wave into a tidal wave and even into a tsunami before you can counter it. And that tsunami is about to hit a lot of advertising that is not realizing the sheer strength of a community and its power in Social Media that can overturn the best laid marketing plans.
Nestle’s would have never sustained with it’s campaign in Asia to against mothers milk in favor of powdered milk for as long as it did if Social Media was around at that time. Social issues are hugely predominant in Social Media as information is actively shared. The community will express itself with force.
So what do you do if you are an advertiser ? How do you promote your product/brand in a world where Social Media is exploding ?
a. You must be far more sensitive to the community. You must find ways to relate to them from within the community to understand their fears and desires.
b. Talking to communities from within the community rather than from outside as Advertising tends to do will be really important. You relate amongst the community rather than outside it. Those days when genius minds sat on a table churning out brilliant ideas that will take over the minds and hearts of the consumers are numbered. The new ‘advertising genius’ is socially aware, caring, emotionally connected and active member of the community who ‘serves’ and not ‘manipulates’
c. Always be aware and sensitive to messages from the community when they are mere waves, and before they turn into tidal waves. If the community is trying to tell you something, listen. Understand. Don’t wait for marketing feed back reports. Social Media is a great listening post, and is usually free. The advertising professional is too used to thinking of the community as targets – target groups , target demographics etc. Communities have begun to resent being targeted.
Advertising is becoming more and more suspect in the collective mind of communities. Often with good reason. If there is to be honor in advertising, the professional must evaluate him/herself as a caring and concerned part of the well being of the community. And act according to that.
Social Media offers huge opportunities too. Interaction with the community could help create a ‘Social Brand Identity’ which is far more powerful than just a Brand Identity. It could do more. Active participation with the community could help product development for your client too. This is just the beginning.
I go to Cannes Lions to speak on these and other issues, and welcome comments/debates on this forum from advertising/creative professionals.