Thursday, April 25, 2019
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Do Consumers Believe Advertising?

No. That’s the short answer. A longer answer involves equal parts technology change, generational culture and individual expectations, and a good dose of reputational damage self-inflicted by the ad industry on itself. That last part is reversible. The data are as conclusive as they are disheartening: about half of consumers think ads have any truth in them, and they range from those who believe there’s a hint of it, to those rare birds who dutifully follow every advertisement as though a Higher Power wrote it. Many people inherently distrust corporations, let alone any established institutions of power, and it has become almost expected that advertisers base their content on selective use of facts, spin, and claims and promises that are intended to convince people to do things that they might not ordinarily do without such prompting.

It’s instructive to explore the technology, cultural, and ad industry actions that have led to this sorry state of affairs:

Technology Killed the Ad Star
Most of what people today associate with the mechanisms of advertising, print or electronic, was developed to exploit the new technologies of the 20th century. Mass-production, four-color printing, radio, and then broadcast television each revolutionized the ways businesses connected with their consumers, and tools developed for each new medium.

Technically, an “ad” is a quantum of information, formatted for a particular transmission platform and intended for a specific purpose. So ads in 18th-century small-run newspapers looked and read like classifieds, for instance, and TV commercials are an effect of TV.

Today’s mediascape has changed drastically from the technologies of the 20th century, providing different platforms (the internet, most notably), new behaviors (tweets, likes, online comments), and sources (peer-to-peer or “P2P” creation of content instead of it is under the control of a small number of providers). Not surprisingly, this changing technology requires a changed approach to advertising. Print ads repurposed for web pages or mobile phones don’t work the same way as they once did, if at all. A video segment that looks and feels like an ad is experienced very differently on, say, YouTube, than it once was on a broadcast television station. It’s hard to imagine, but advertising was a trusted source of communications during much of the 20th century.

The idea that corporations would squander money to propagate lies, or that they’d get away with it for long if they tried, was all but impossible for consumers to believe. Granted, much of advertising content was far from perfectly truthful or even fair, but it was grounded in factual reality and held accountable to it. It was also distinctly separate speech from editorial or other non-commercial communication, indeed once corporate sponsorship of radio and TV programming gave way to discrete commercials in the late 1950s. So when ads appeared, consumers knew the purpose of the content and were suitably prepared (to varying degrees, of course).

Adaptation and Evaporation
Today, as technology has dispersed communication ownership and experience, commercial speech has evolved and adapted to these new media. Campaigns intended to prompt people to spend time with the ads have replaced discrete ads in many instances. Measures of ad efficacy get counted in clicks and shares instead of qualitative surveys of belief and adoption.

Old formats, such as the “advertorial” — marketing content presented as if it’s editorial — have been reborn as “native advertising,” further blurring the lines between commercial and non-commercial speech. Traditional ads are harder to find today than they were even a decade ago. The medium sometimes seems at risk of evaporating.

Much of this change has been cultural and economic. Just like a generation of consumers who came of age in the 1960s rejected the vision of material comfort collectively promoted by marketers of the time, millennial consumers (and the next generation of buyers) have adopted an intriguing mishmash of self-interest and social concern. While they behave as though the world revolves around them, they think they’re deeply involved in it. Marketers have told them repeatedly that they are empowered and responsible for deciding everything, and many of them believe their opinions should matter to everyone.

The intriguing pivot is that, while millennials think they’re concerned with the world, it is only the world they choose to care about, mostly virtually through their social media tools. Not surprisingly, their incomes trail those of prior generations at the same stages in life, a circumstance aggravated by changing economic conditions that have made the traditional job advancement tracks increasingly uncommon and far less reliable.

A shocking percentage of people in America work at minimum wage jobs that offer little to no opportunity for advancement (let alone skills acquisition). It seems that not only have ads evaporated but so has the life they once promised.

Square Pegs, Round Holes
So the question “do consumers believe advertising?” is complicated by technological and cultural change, which create more profound questions about the premises that support the idea of material well-being. It’s difficult to sell things that consumers believe might be self-produced or actualized. It doesn’t help that advertisers seem intent on creating content that is mostly entertaining and therefore disposable.

While consumers never particularly appreciated getting interrupted by commercial content, at least they understood the quid pro quo of media experience, and marketers tried to use that purposeful interruption to their best advantage. Today’s ads are often devoid of any real message or commercial purpose, and this is especially true of social media-based campaigns aimed at producing engagement, consuming time, and providing nothing in the way of a selling message (it’s now generically called “content”).

By removing overt selling from ads, advertisers avoid offending consumers, but they simultaneously avoid speaking to them honestly and directly. It contributes to the denigration of the medium overall. Ads are ads, and there’s a good reason to consider that their original purposes should reaffirm them; they should not get repurposed to fit new media.

Context changes everything, and if ads need to get neutered to “work” on social platforms, perhaps social platforms aren’t the right place for them. Conversely, the media in which ads are still expected or endured (i.e., all of the traditional channels), there’s an equally compelling reason to make them more “ad-like.”

Stand for things. Declare and prove benefits. Risk being adopted or rejected. Be clear. “Belief” and “agreement” aren’t synonymous, and if ads are to be believable again, it might be necessary to allow consumers to agree or disagree with offers. There’s a future for advertising, but only if it embraces its core strengths from the past.

Do Consumers Believe Advertising?