Should Brand Advertising Tell The Truth?

Mark Di SommaSeptember 5, 20134 min

A number of years ago, Stephen Dubner asked which industry makes the most misleading ads? His personal opinion was the companies that advertise closets. As he says, they always seem to be pieces of furniture that are bathed in sunlight, and that are owned by people who have three pairs of identical and very clean pants or skirts, but never anything unshapely like an accordion, or hockey stick. (A bit like those layouts in “Have a more organized life” books!)

But what really interested me was the list in the comments that followed as to who, in the minds of readers, was even more responsible for misleading consumers. It included: political campaigns; fast food companies; tobacco brands; alcohol makers; pharmaceuticals companies; car makers; mobile phone companies; oil companies; diet and weight loss programs; the beauty industry; internet providers; chewing gum manufacturers; household product manufacturers; soft drink companies; casinos …

Misleading’s an interesting term. It implies of course that people can’t see that they are being told things that are, how shall I put this, overly optimistic. Yet research by Lab 42 seems to show that consumers are very aware that what they are seeing may not end up being what they get. According to Lab 42’s research, 76% of respondents think advertisements contain exaggerated claims, and a mere 3% think ads are “very accurate.” So, if the vast majority of people don’t believe what they see, half of that number wish claims were more accurate and nearly one-third of viewers feel they know what ads are trying to do, what function does advertising serve today?

If you look at some of the best advertising in the world, its purpose is often not to give consumers facts. It may have been once but in today’s world, with so many channels, instant search, review sites and social communities, the details and the realities are fairly easy to find elsewhere. The ads provide a cue and a logo to seek out more details elsewhere.

That’s hardly surprising. Media today is measured in bytes and memes. The key role of advertising now is to pitch an impression, a simple gem that catches people’s eyes and locks with a worldview that they have. Advertising seeks compatibility – on a range of fronts.

  • Credibility – the very presence of a brand in media often gives that brand credibility and of course familiarity. That’s important for consumers looking for brands that they feel at ease with. We believe what we see, and ignore what we don’t.
  • Image – visual cues convey in an instant how a brand sees itself. That helps people self-identify. They want their budget brands to feel budget. They want their treats to feel special. The beautifully art directed Harvey Nichols ad in the Best Press Ads may be for a sale but there’s nothing downmarket about the look and feel – nor should there be.
  • Personality – conveys character, and therefore what people expect in other parts of the experience chain. A lightning rod for likeability if it’s done well because it gives a brand immediacy and humanity, providing of course the feeling holds true at every touchpoint.
  • Beliefs – states what’s important and what they hold true to. Vital for NGOs of course – but increasingly important for opinionated brands looking to build affinity with consumers through common beliefs. The Dove campaign is an ongoing example of this strategy at work. It tells me nothing about the product. It tells me everything about what they consider important.
  • Updates – the closest most ads come to informing. Vital for new product launches or announcing improvements. Often, such ads act as a telegraph for what consumers should look for, or seek information on, elsewhere.
  • Cues – introduce new ways of behaving or suggest new approaches to old problems. Particularly useful for brands looking to change a consumer habit (or indeed looking to instill one). Take a look at the brutally direct Crisis Relief Singapore campaign in the Best Press Ads for a stunning example of directing people what they can really do to help. Ouch.
  • Adjustmentrepositions the brand in the mind of the consumer. A powerful indicator of a change in attitude within the brand, or a call for the consumer to rethink their own view of a brand they felt they knew. Take a look at the way Penguin pitch their audiobooks in the Best Press Ads for a gorgeous example of this idea at work. Or the Land Rover campaign about what you can eat in the remote places you can reach.

All of that is advertising at its best. At its worst, and sadly in its most common expression, advertising is anything but inspiring or truthful – loud, intrusive, stupid, self-centered and above all boring. It offends because it patronizes, and it patronizes because it’s made by brand owners who have failed to see that the premise of effective advertising has shifted.

Unless you are making ads that inspire and incite in ways that surprise and are true to what your customers hold dear, you’re not advertising, you’re blathering.

No message is so important that people should despise how it’s conveyed to them.

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Mark Di Somma


  • Anasta Gianni

    September 6, 2013 at 12:22 am

    The first question that springs into my mind is: Is there such thing as a “product/service” that sells itself?
    I believe there are two extremes in this perspective. Products like Ferrari or Porsche cars with long waiting lists, which, despite any infinitesimal flaws and strong competition, virtually “sell themselves”. On the other hand, there are inferior products or services that have enjoyed substantial success through strong and continuous promotion.
    Does a Porsche car need any kind of advertising? The answer to this question would probably be a negative one, however, Porsche still makes commercials. I am not sure, on the other hand, that the life insurance market would even exist at first place, if there wasn’t so much hard marketing applied by salespeople.

  • Jay Gopal

    September 6, 2013 at 10:10 am

    I guess part of it is our own fault, as consumers we wouldn’t get attracted to something that doesnt look good in print. That is why the general disclaimer clause of “The image shown doesnt reflect actual….” be made compulsory for all ads. Having said that, it is always better to tell the truth as that will endear your brands to more loyal customers. It will benefit in the long run.

  • Joel MaHarry

    September 6, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Yes. That’s actually a topic of frequent conversation around our agency, in no small part because creating work that treats people with respect is one of our founding tenets. We’ve added a moral component as well — will our client’s success, on balance, be good for our neighbors, our culture, our society? We’ll be giving a talk on our approach at an upcoming AMA conference.

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