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Where Have I Seen That Face Before?
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Ads Need To Borrow From Social & Social From Ads In Order To Be True

I think the same model appears in commercials for Cialis and Plavix. Aside from the obvious hilarity of promoting a drug that causes hearts to palpitate and then one that calms them, I think she illustrates some of what's wrong with advertising.

We know the spots aren’t real, of course. When the model and her model husband discover the urge to procreate while painting the walls in their model living room, the set morphs into an outdoor setting so they can instead sit down and lecture us about our, er, heads exploding and other risks from taking Cialis. The Plavix spot has the model getting chased by a hospital gurney, and then she happily fills out paperwork. The ads are clearly fantasies.

Can make-believe messengers deliver real truths?

It happens in art all the time. Works of art are contrivances of artists, by definition, even if their source materials are real. So is reporting and biography: our understanding of reality on the evening cable news or via the latest tweets are products, not direct feeds into truth. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" makes no such pretense of reality yet communicates absolute truths about the human condition, just as Picasso's abstract paintings are purposefully unreal but manage to present real experience to at least some viewers. Songs ring true even though Nature knows no blues chord progression or 4/4 time.

The Cialis and Plavix spots are only slightly more creative than putting an announcer behind a mic to recite product functions, though. The broader premise in marketing has been that ads can and should be creative, so as to better break through the clutter, resonate with consumers, and achieve some lasting effect. It has been this way since the middle of the 20th Century. We know the insurance company spokescritter isn't real, and that the guy in the shaving cream ad isn't really an astronaut. Advertising aspires to creatively communicate truth beyond its acknowledged falsehood; like art, it presumes consumers' willing suspension of disbelief.

What's wrong with this approach is that advertising isn't art and it doesn't tell us many truths about products or services anymore, let alone the human condition, and the absence of truth isn't just a vacuum, it's often a lie. We might laugh, cry, share, and even remember ads, but the true measure of their truthiness is whether or not we believe their commercial messages to be true, and then feel compelled to act upon them (by buying stuff).

Much of the rush to social media has been a result of this disconnect in advertising, and not a cause of its downfall as has been often alleged. Consumers use social media to get away from bad commercial speech, not to find better or different versions of it. The premise that marketers should chase them there with campaigns utterly devoid of any commercial truth whatsoever is ludicrous, if you think about it. Pretending to merely just want to talk or interact with consumers is no more truthful than trying to sell them things that aren't true. There's a growing canon of creative nonsense purporting to support this very endeavor: the fix for the inauthenticity in advertising is to lie about the ultimate purpose of using social media.

Telling the truth would make any of these uses of media more believable and commercially relevant. I think the key is to apply to seriously powerful aspects of social to advertising, and to embrace some of advertising's strengths in social:

  • Real people in advertising -- With apologies to every model working in the ad business, there's no reason why real people can't appear in ads. Every word or gesture should come from somebody who really believes in it; telling the truth doesn't have to be boring, but it does have to be truthful, and seeing the same models appear in ads is a clarion call to falsehood. Companies like Chicago's Real Talent book real people into business photo shoots, for instance.
  • Real benefits in social -- Enough already with the avoidance of commercial speech; people know that your brand wants to sell stuff, so why not structure social campaigns on communicating, dimensionalizing, and reaffirming real benefits? You can't outsource this to the crowd because it's the brand's responsibility, and you can't be credible if you avoid it. Contrast Pepsi's Refresh Project (which tells lots of people absolutely nothing about soda pop) and Apple's communities of users filling any of its stores (who are focused exclusively on product benefits).
  • Real disclosure in all formats -- The business world is chocked full of truths that companies don't want to talk about. Oil pollutes and depletes Mother Gaia yet everyone depends on it. Clothing is affordable because its sewn by impoverished workers in faraway countries. Hamburgers used to be cows, and chicken fingers come from beasts whose feet never touched the ground. Making these facts reasonable, or finding reasonable ways to change them, is the true creative challenge of our times. Any communications strategy that ignores or twists these truths are dishonest by default as well as by commission.

Ads. Social campaigns. The formats don't matter. Media aren't truthful or not, and the problem is that we've see just about every way possible to try and avoid recognizing this fact.

It's time we saw something truly new.

Added: 5th August 2010


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