communications, advertising & the battle for truth
“Forget words like ‘hard sell’ and ‘soft sell.’
That will only confuse you.
Just be sure your advertising is saying something with substance, something that will inform and serve the consumer, and be sure you’re saying it like it’s never been said before.”
“If you try to comprehend air before breathing it, you will die.”
“Seeking truth is a full time job. Communicating truth is a purpose in Life.
Embrace that truth and your Life will be significantly more complicated, but significantly more rewarding.”
I scan headlines in magazines and online and I cannot see one topic being discussed, one industry or any one group of influential type people that isn’t under attack by ‘lack of trust’ or, in other words, ‘liars.’
What that means is anything you are communicating isn’t starting from a commodity standpoint <all facts and truths are created equal>, but rather you are already in a hole trying to climb out of ‘prove to me this is not a lie.’
Think about that if you work in marketing, advertising or any brand type position. Think about that REALLY hard.
Truth has never had a more difficult challenge than today. This may sound odd because common sense suggests truth is truth and, unvarnished, stands clear of any and all clutter as … well … truth. Unfortunately that is not … well … true.
Truth, more often than not, is a wallflower and not the one breakdancing in the middle of the room. The schlub doing the crazy dance alone, being watched by everyone, is more likely a lie or a semi/partial truth. You have to coax truth to the dance floor. Someone has to bring it out into the audience and permit it to be seen.
To be honest, Truth telling is hard work. It is not for the faint of heart. Seeking truth is a full time job <which most people, frankly, just do not have the time to do as they do their paid full time job>. And communicating truth has to be a purpose in one’s life in order to meet the onslaught of untruths, purposeful ignorance, unintended ignorance, semi-truths and cynicism.
To be clear.
I do not believe we are in some ‘post truth world.’ Nor do I believe what someone said “there are no facts anymore.”
Facts are facts and truth is truth. There may be some confusion around this but, of all industries, advertising and marketing communications people had sure as shit better be fucking clear on this or they are in deep shit.
While I believe business, in general, benefits if they start on day one embracing the thought they are in the decommoditization business <rather than in the ‘uniqueness business’> I believe communications would benefit by embracing the thought they are in the ‘establishing truths’ business.
Look <part 1>.
Advertising, marketing and all of professional communications is in a challenging position. Challenging in that businesses spend money on marketing & advertising most typically to sell shit. Therefore its main goal is to, well, sell shit. This means that if I represent a product and its main buying audience is white, male & blue collar <or pick any demographically based segment> I am going to use imagery and words that will appeal to them <sometimes to the detriment to other audiences who are less likely to buy your shit>.
Now. Of course you want to do it with style and substance and some sense of responsibility <not be stupid>. So any advertising person with any chops <any good> will figure out a way of not doing the stupid shit to sell shit. Even then your audience is your audience and while we would like to suggest everything is made to be created with a larger purpose of ‘bettering the world’ to a business who only has maybe $1000 to market something <or some finite budget amount> that $1000 is spent on selling shit and not ‘bettering the world.’
Simplistically, you sell to the people who will buy or have bought.
Simplistically, you sell to those people who will buy in the most effective way so that they will actually buy.
I say that because someone on the outside looking in can take apart imagery & words and make some very valid points with regard to the kinds of messages they send, but marketing people & advertising people are under a lot of pressure to sell shit. And, remember, they are in the service business. They ultimately do not do anything but ‘strategically create persuasive creations’ and a business makes the decision on whether what they create will actually be produced and put in front of people. Here is where the communications folk can get a little sideways. They focus on imagery & words & ‘attention’ with the intent to gain interest — not specifically sell shit. Sometimes they ignore truth as too complicated & too complex. Now. It is quite possible we communications folk may have gotten away with that in the past, but in today’s world, sure as shit, you better be grounded in hard, clear truth or you are gonna get screwed.
Look <part 2>.
In the good ole days truth was appreciated, but aspirational sold.
Messages are everywhere and simply suggesting you were offering truth because “you consumers are too clever to fall for manipulation” gave people permission to at least think you were offering truth.
No more my friends.
While aspirational drives value, lack of truth suffocates value into nothingness. This doesn’t mean there will not be a boatload of products and services who make a sale standing on the superficial surface of irrelevant, but appealing, value. But that will be the geography populated by the hacks.
This truth thing may not be a battle which some people want to fight. And that is okay. But someone has to or the entire industry will become irrelevant. If no one tells the truth, why would I listen to anyone?
I, personally, am not suggesting ditching aspirational but I am suggesting that truth, communicating the truth in a away that people actually believe it is true, is the key to future success.
Look <part 3>
I have worked in and out of the marketing and advertising business for <yikes> over 30 years so I feel like I have some qualifications to comment on the industry. Everyone on the outside of the advertising business looking in thinks those creating the advertising think about shit that, truthfully, advertising people actually never waste their time thinking about. And everyone inside the advertising business thinks about more shit than people outside the advertising could ever imagine they think about.
Suffice it to say I could gather up examples of advertising, using material over 20 years, and make pretty much any point I want to make – good, bad, absurd, true, untrue, semitruthful, smart, insightful or blatantly uninsightful.
Anyway. Here is a communications truth — perception is not reality. The perception is that advertising makes shit up, makes stupid vapid shit and says nothing <as much as possible> and if they do say something it is a lie and, ultimately, they try and make people feel something <to sell>.
Nothing could be further from the truth <that is, of course, with the non hacks>.
The problem in advertising typically arises when the ad creators struggle to articulate the benefit <or convince themselves that it is ‘non differentiating’ and then seek to ‘differentiate’ in some absurd form or fashion>. It then can unravel from there because the ‘go-to’ phrase at this point in time is ‘do something brave’ or ‘entertaining’ or ‘edgy’ <notice nowhere in there is “smart, insightful, thoughtful, truth”>.
Sure. Great advertising messaging always is, and will be, imbued with some sense of courage.
Because if you want to be distinct you will not please everyone.
Because if you want to tell the truth you will not please everyone.
The hack advertising people use the ‘do something brave’ phrase indiscriminately to justify bad advertising.
The good advertising people use this phrase to do something smart in order to not be different but stand ABOVE everyone else.
Yup. Huge difference.
Hacks say ‘stand apart.’
Non hacks say ‘stand above.’
This is where I imagine articles about advertising should focus their attention on. Why doesn’t the advertising stand above <and not be below what is good & right & untrue>.
Advertising should be smart and not talk down to people but actually enable them to rise up to the occasion and FEEL like they are rising up to engage with that brand or company.
Communications should be truthful, regardless whether it is simple or complex, and enable people to be able to FEEL truth in such a way that doubts about that brand or company are swept away.
Advertising cannot be dull and uninspired, oh, and you cannot use a small budget as an excuse. In fact the truth is that a limited budget is typically what drives innovative advertising.
Yup. Inspired smart creativity tends to make each dollar be more effective <hence you can live with a smaller budget>.
In other words a smart, insightful, relevant, entertaining ad will be more memorable than a typical ‘category using sacred cow imagery’ ad therefore it needs to be seen less for the same effect.
Oh. And if you add in ‘truth’ <in a way in which you aren’t just communicating it but people actually BELIEVE it>, your communications is more memorable, more believable, can be seen less for the same effect … and is, of course, of higher value.
By the way, smart means not any obvious photoshopping or any exaggerated ridiculous claims or just plain inaccurate information or anything fluffed up or untrue.
By the way, smart means avoiding stereotypes, typecasting and idiotic generalizations and lies.
Note to advertising people:
We can see through those slimy tactics. Realize consumers are people … people who are smart and informed.
Make me aware of a product.
Relate to me.
Tell me the Truth.
“A dull truth will not be looked at. An exciting lie will. That is what good, sincere people must understand. They must make their truth exciting and new, or their good works will be born dead.”
Truth is truth.
Lies are lies.
Responsibility is responsibility.
If you choose to vulgarize the society or brutalize it or even ignore it <all under the guise of ‘understanding what the consumer wants’>, society will lose.
I honestly do not despair when I look at business in today’s world or even marketing & advertising behavior.
I get aggravated.
I get angry.
I get angry that we are not accepting the responsibility.
I get angry that we are not strong enough to accept the burden.
I get angry that many do not even presume the responsibility is within their purview.
Business, whether you like it or not, shapes society. Business, whether you like it or not, shapes truth.
What professional communicators do matters.
Selling stuff only matters as a means to an end. What really matters is the shaping of attitudes <which ultimately shapes behavior>. Far too often by simply focusing on ‘selling stuff’ the byproduct of our ignoring the larger responsibility is that we brutalizing society in some form or fashion – in this case and in this time and place … it would be truth we are brutalizing.
Am I suggesting that selling stuff or being profitable isn’t important? Of course not. All I am suggesting is that HOW you sell stuff and be profitable matters. And that you have a responsibility in HOW you do what you do.
Because HOW you do things impacts society. It shapes society. It can vulgarize or brutalize … or invigorate or instill good.
HOW you do things has a power way beyond simply you or what you do in that moment.
HOW you do things is a pebble dropping into a pond.
In the end.
I will not argue that all advertising is good.
I will not argue that all professional communications is good.
A lot of it is shit.
But I will argue that good communications & advertising people, not hacks, are smart and tend to create smart insightful educating communication pieces that avoid the trite and stereotyping imagery and focus on telling the truth, if not A real truth, rather than lie or some semi truth.
I would also argue that good communications & advertising people, not hacks, have the opportunity to save truth in today’s society.
I can honestly say I don’t think most who are attacking truth are trying to facilitate its downfall most are simply unclear what is truth and what is not. I believe anyone in any position of influence should be proactively assuming the burdensome responsibility of telling and protecting truth <that will come at an expense> but, today, I think the professional communications industry should be at the forefront of the battle.
Why? They get paid to communicate. If they cannot figure out how to effectively communicate truth, who can?
They must must make their truth exciting and new, or their good works will be born dead. Uhm. And lies will win.
About the author:
I am a 50something who believes my generation hollowed out Truth by simplistically suggesting truth was best told through simplicity.
Truth is neither simple nor hollow.
I have had one framed picture in my office since maybe 2000: Seek Truth.