How Advertising Lost Half Its Credibility

Photo cred: Scotty Perry

Advertising has gone through some huge changes over the last few years.  Today, we’re seeing major brands dropping their Superbowl ad spots, newspapers quickly declining in numbers and even online ad spending has dropped for the first time since 2002.  Do you think advertising is failing? Perhaps only part of it…

Advertising tends to follow a simple model: provide entertainment to catch people’s attention, then make the pitch.  It essentially aims to accomplish two things: Increase Brand Recognition and to Convey a Message. I’ll argue that the latter is no longer effective.

The advertising message is dying.

Today, if you put up a commercial of a guy getting rocked in the balls, people will watch, and probably be entertained, UNTIL you try to sell them the cup. That’s where they tune you out.

So, if people pay attention to the content and ignore the message, we can understand why advertising on the internet is failing. Online, the content isn’t in the ad, it’s on the page. Internet ads, usually just make a sale (there isn’t much room for entertainment), which is what we’ve become so good at ignoring.  Online, it’s very easy to take in content without paying any attention to the ads.

One area of advertising that continues to grow is in online video ads and that won’t change soon.  As more viewers move from the television to the internet, so will the advertising dollars.  Watching a show on hulu feels just like watching it on tv, just with less ads (for now). Similar to television though, the message will be lost.  It’s even easier, since you can click on something else for 30 seconds.

It comes down to credibility.

Brands shoot for two kinds of credibility with their advertising campaigns:

  • Credibility as a brand
  • Credibility in the message

Seeing a well produced ad (especially on television) lends credibility to the brand name.  It lets the consumer know that the brand is the real deal. So credibility as a brand is still gained through advertising.  Whatever they have to say about their product in that ad, however, has no credibility, and would be lucky to make it in one ear and out the other.  Credibility in the message…cut.

Brands, I don’t care what you say your pill does, or how much your competitor sucks.  Hearing about it from you, or the actors in your ads, means nothing to me.

So is advertising still worth it simply for the brand credibility? Would businesses be better off investing in other platforms to share their message?  How will advertising campaigns adapt to these changes in 2010?

39 thoughts on “How Advertising Lost Half Its Credibility

  1. David, you’d be surprised by the number of purchasing decisions that are made because of TV and mainstream ads. I’s even go so far as to say that pop culture is very much defined by what the media boasts as cool.

    However, your right. Spending is down, eyeballs and attention are fracturing, and that proverbial ball is still up in the air. Some of it boils down to philosophy and some of it boils down to confusion on part of the companies and agencies. This I do know. Companies are asking more of their dollar these days… and rightly so. The inflated reach numbers that agencies used to BS with are coming into question. Organizations are asking what the ROI is not the number of impressions. This forces the agency side to be more ‘function’ than ‘wow’. Don’t worry though as companies start to fill their coffers as we come out of this recession they will get loose with their funds again.

    1. Do you think that part of it was that on television/billboards/traditional advertising, it was very easy to inflate #’s since there was (and is) no way to track the ROI? Now that web advertising allows businesses to track the ROI, businesses are finding the true results, and reacting?

      When funds loosen up and businesses are willing to spend more, do you think they’ll continue to turn to advertising or look elsewhere? And how will advertising change? I think the only way it can change is to become hyper personalized…minority report style. Read my eyeballs!

  2. Hi David,

    I was finally able to comment! Not sure what changed, but I’m glad it’s working. 🙂

    I think that this is a great post with some very valid points, but I respectfully disagree with some of what you say. I think that advertising will continue to be valuable, both for consumers and brands, in the right time and place.

    Take, for example, a brand new company with a fantastic, innovative product. Yes, conversations with users are important and word of mouth would be great. However, I think that advertising would be an important part of the company’s communications strategy, as increasing brand/product awareness is key.

    I think the challenge will be for brands to know when and where advertising is appropriate, versus cutting it out completely.

    I’m interested in seeing what everyone else thinks, though! Perhaps I’m biased because I work for an ad agency. 🙂

    1. Emily, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. My main point of the post wasn’t that advertising has lost all value, but that where it used to serve two functions (recognition and conveying a message), it now only has one: Recognition. So it certainly still has value, it’s just a lesser value than say, 3 years ago.

      So essentially, if you’re trying to convince the consumer of something, advertising will do absolutely nothing. If you’re just trying to get people to notice you and your product, then advertising is still a good way to go.

      1. Thanks for clarifying!

        I think we’re pretty much on the same page, although I do believe that there is still the potential to convince the consumer of something, as long as the message you’re conveying is honest, interesting, and relevant. (And I know…those are some pretty big if’s!)

        1. See I’m not sure if I can agree with that. I think that so much BS has been thrown at the consumer through advertising, that even if the message is honest, they won’t believe it.

          It would have to be HIGHLY relevant and HIGHLY valuable.

          1. That could be the case, although I think it differs depending on the industry, product, and target audience.

            Thanks so much for sharing your point of view! I’d say the majority of the industry definitely doesn’t want to hear this, and it’s critical that we do.

  3. Hey David,

    Really enjoyed this post. I think, in terms of advertising, it is harder than ever to create perceived value organically. A product can become cool or a “must have” but more and more this spreads from consumer to consumer rather than from ad man/woman to consumer.

    Advertising is still relevant and powerful when it comes to creating engaging storytelling across all media entry points, or by illustrating brand utility.

    Show the world that your product is better. Allow consumers to connect with fictional characters or story-lines that hold our attention.

    Like Mr. Stuart Foster said in a recent post on the lost jacket, advertising is now “meta”. Advertisements themselves have to be a story to be successful.

    Do you agree?

    1. But that’s the point, it doesn’t matter if you get the consumer’s attention anymore. Sure they’ll pay attention to the story, but as soon as the product is pushed in there, they tune out.

      The only way to show the world that your product is better is to make a better product and word of mouth. You saying that your product is better does nothing in an ad. There are a couple cases where you could say that advertisements trashing the opposition created a better perception of their brand (apple and verizon) but if they didn’t have great products, that people already heard was better than the competitor, the ads would flop pretty quickly.

  4. You’re absolutely right that there is significant backlash against dishonest ads these days (taco bell drive thru diet). However, I feel that the way consumers choose products is a little more complex than word of mouth.

    Move away from the notion of traditional advertising and mass marketing and think about the possibility for advertising to create targeted brand narratives that enhance the users experience with a product or brand.

    Think about things like the Mad Men yourself campaign to drive awareness before the launch of this season. Think about Coca-Cola’s fb page that targets to you based on your zip code. Isn’t that advertising?

    People pay attention to brands and products, but only when they provide direct value, whether it be entertainment or utility, to their daily lives. Like all of the communications industry advertising is trying to adapt in this world of social, and like all of us, they will integrate old technologies into the new and evolve.

    1. Exactly, and those are effective viral marketing tools (mad men yourself). It definitely increased awareness for the show. For things like television shows, building awareness is the name of the game right? They don’t need to convey a message per se…they just have to spark your interest and get you to watch it.

      Framing advertising campaigns to involve social platforms is certainly an adaptation that is going on now.

  5. For the most part I’d have to agree with you, but I think this is all highly hypothetical and varies by industry and type of advertising.

    I would have to agree that online ads are easily ignored. They won’t ever be seen and even if they are they’ll only be seen maybe once. The exception here might be facebook ads. I click on those things more than I ever would have imagined; and they keep showing up! And I agree that television and radio ads are just as easily ignored – change the station or mute for a few minutes. With online video ads it doesn’t even seen worth my time to switch to something else for only 30 seconds, so I usually watch them!

    I digress… point being I agree it’s all about recognition. The message is not so important as just being at the front of someone’s brain when they’re making a buying decision. I work part-time in the promotional products industry and I don’t think promotional product advertising is going away anytime soon. The industry certainly has to adapt constantly, but people always want free giveaways (ESPECIALLY RIGHT NOW). Promotional product advertising is perfect for right now because it’s relatively inexpensive for companies and it’s right the “brand recognition” alley. Give someone a free T-shirt with simply your company name on it and they’ll be a walking advertisement for years to come. But I really do think the messages are becoming obsolete.

    1. Ah the promotional strategies are of a whole different breed. I wanted to write this in the post but didn’t want to stray from my point. I wanted to mention that the growth of “free” online could a possible result of the lost message. Once you have someone’s attention online, many feel that the only way to get them to take action, is to give things away for free.

  6. I think you may be confusing your own perspective with that of the majority. While ads may be lost on you, you have an education on the subject that most people do not. The concepts of headlining, calls to action, price points, target audiences, etc. are not common knowledge in middle america.

    If you are selling a service to business executives then your gonna want to be creative and honest in your sales pitch. It will require forward thinking and nuance.
    If you are selling tractors you’re probably gonna want to make them shiny and loud

    1. True, it’s easy for me to pick apart advertisements. That’s why I linked to articles discussing the drop in advertising (online and off). Traditional advertising isn’t as effective as it used to be.

  7. Wouldn’t that stand to reason with an overall drop in spending due to the recession? Maybe the message just needs to change. Most commercials seems to either say, “You know you fuckin want this thing I have,” or “You’re gonna die if you don’t take this pill mother fucker”
    I much prefer the wendy’s advertising message of “spicy chicken nuggets?” I don’t mind if I do.

    I’ve also noticed a shift away from half naked women in every other commercial that I find disturbing

  8. If the object of an ad is to sell something, then isn’t your blog post and every comment below it an ad? Aren’t I adding a comment because I am inspired to buy your product, drink your Kool Aid, embrace that which you are selling however abstract it may be?

    1. An ad is meant to sell something as much as any other business tool.

      If we were to break this down to the concept of an idea being “sold” as you say I have in this blog post, one could break it down further to the concept of any form of communication being used to sell. Even saying hello.

  9. David,

    You mention credibility extensively in this post. I’m curious as to what brands or advertisers that you think have credibility and are “doing it right” so to speak. Because at the end of the day, doesn’t EVERY brand that advertises lack a little bit of credibility? Because in all honesty, every product has flaws, nothing is perfect, so by not being honest about those flaws, are they then not being credible? Ads are meant to highlight the positives in a product and get you to buy, on any level, so how can any brand be truly “credible” 100% of the time?

    Curious to hear your thoughts. Good post that made me think though, as usual.


    1. Jay,

      Really great points. Actually had to go back through my post to read it over again (=

      I think that’s the point that I’m trying to make. Advertising was never 100% credible. Whatever you say about your brand or about your competitors is always going to be just one side of the story. Perhaps the last year or so was just that point where the consumer came to terms with it.

      Today, even if you were to trying to be completely honest, you’d find it very difficult to convey that honesty and a believable manner. One ad doing it (somewhat) right that comes to mind is the new Dominos commercials. I think they have the right mentality. They showed focus groups of people tearing their product apart, and said what they’re going to do about it. It was honest, and interesting.

      Not sure if that answers your question. Let me know if it doesn’t. Thank you for always making me think Jay.

  10. I believe you’re making two assumptions that are incorrect:

    First, that all advertising is direct response. The goal of most advertising, especially the kind that makes you laugh isn’t intended to make you pick up the phone and order a pizza. It’s to generate awareness for the next time you buy. This has been proven effective over the years. This type of advertising, brand advertising, has also been show to generate online buzz when buyers are further down the “purchase funnel.” Something were testing with clients now.

    Also you’re assuming that television is losing audience. It’s not. It’s still king of all media and that’s not changing. Nielson numbers continue to show very strong TV viewership. What is changing is the way people watch TV, with laptops in their laps and on DVRs.

    What online offers that few traditional media do (direct mail does), is tracking. This one of the things that makes online so attractive right now. You can see the eyeballs coming to your corporate site, your sales channel or microsite from your Google Adsenese or Analytics. That stuff looks great to the board room.

    1. Jimmy,

      Half of my point was that advertising is meant to build awareness, being the remaining effective function of advertising.

      If traditional television isn’t going down fast then I missed something. I’m not stating the viewership has gone down. But as you stated how they’re watching their shows is absolutely changing. As platforms change, so do the efficiency advertisements.

      In a few years time, I can easily see television networks struggling the same way newspapers are today. Once it becomes widely accepted that you can watch any tv show on the internet (hulu) with high quality, and just plug it right into your tv, what chance does cablevision have? Therefore, what chance do their advertisers have?

      It seems that advertising has shifted its focus as it moved online. Online it’s less about awareness and more about driving numbers (since it can be tracked). It only looks great to the board if it’s effective. Is it?

  11. Hey David

    Great post..
    Advertising is going through a shift… and a very interesting one..where marketer’s have the
    new media where they can reach directly to their consumers..
    n this new media has changed the way people use TV n Newspaper.. people are increasingly login onto youtube n the likes to watch videos..
    hulu’s still not available across the board yet.. but that day is not far..
    iam a TV addict..or rather was.. coz even a guy like me who stil like to read the paper the traditional rarely watch TV..
    n with some confidence i can say the we 20-30 year olds watch TV very selectively…
    so what the todays marketer has to identify is that who among their Target Audience is on which media platform..
    TV ad’s do create brand awareness.. but that’s how far most Ad’s go.. the decision to buy depends on host of other factors..
    We can as u say ignore the ads on the net.. N change the channel on TV..
    as for marketers its a constant change n they’ll have too keep up..for now consumers even control the media or medium..n u just cant throw anything at them..
    well u really set the mind ticking ..thanks for that..
    if u want an Indian centric view try this

    1. Thanks for the comment. It does seem that the consumer has a lot more power than in the past.

      The shift to social platforms is interesting, because we’ve gone from watching tv where everything is produced by brands, to online, where ads are found in the middle of a sea of user generated content.

  12. Yes, traditional advertising is dying. My simple prediction is: give stuff for free and let word of mouth do its work.

    Or, give stuff for free, and sell something that complements it.

    The point is that we are more skeptical and just DON’T CARE about any freaking ad. Companies, adjust accordingly.

  13. David,

    I think you’re over simplifying a very complex issue.

    To say that ads have no credibility, that the message doesn’t work or that you don’t care that their competitor sucks is hard to agree with when one only needs to look at say, Apple. They have no real presence on SocMe — even their Twitter accounts are nothing other than broadcast channels. They built their brand on ads and continue to do so.

    Their “your product sucks and my product is cool” ads are quite simply the best comparative advertising in recent memory if not of all time.

    I think a more proper title for this post would have been how BAD advertising lost its credibility.

    But as most of the advertising out there today is bad, I can see how maybe you got “confused.” 😉

    And to tag onto the convo between you and Emily — while I respect your opinion David, I’ve got plenty of case studies (recent ones) that are 100% advertising driving change in attitude. The common link amongst all of them: the work was relevant and engaging. It didn’t sound like an ad so much as a message the consumer was willing to hear.

    Thanks for getting the convo started.

    1. You might be right…perhaps I confused bad cases of advertising with advertising being bad in general. Of course, I have simplified it as it is a blog post. If I were to write a scholarly journal on this topic, what I’ve written wouldn’t fly unless I gave considerable attention to the exceptions and specific cases on both sides of the argument.

      Apple is an interesting one. Those commercials certainly lent credibility to apple as a brand. You could say that the overall message was “apple is better than microsoft” but that deals more with brand credibility than anything. The specific messages may have been successful, but only because it was supported by reality. The public already thought that Vista sucked…these commercials just reinforced that mentality.

      So perhaps advertising has no credibility in convincing consumers of new messages? Unless a message is already supported by word of mouth, by reality, people won’t buy it.

      1. Great convo here, and you’re right: Tom’s post is a winner. Bad advertising (and its evil step-parent Bad Marketing Strategy) is what’s losing credibility, impact and effect.

        The “mass” of the media is shifting. People will still tune in to watch the Super Bowl, the game and the ads. Popular ads will get flagged on and shared to personal networks via FB and YouTube.

        RE: Apple vs. MS/Vista. Sure Apple has had a great year with more switchers, but MS still owns market share. Now look at iPhone numbers, that’s another story; Apple’s ads are all “look in awe at the cool toy” while AT&T’s are “our 3G isn’t as sucky as you think.” Apple’s got the brand credibility, which is why they promote their product and let AT&T promote its network. FWIW.

      2. I’ll take on
        “advertising has no credibility in convincing consumers of new messages?”
        David, I believe a lot of ads fall within that statement. BUT, and it’s a big BUT here.

        A brand’s ads are often targeted at “focusing” awareness, and in using that focus to lead to direct action or decisions.

        A feeling, idea, or perception is often buried within market consciousness but not clearly elocuted. Once it is focused approriately, it becomes an “oh yeah, that’s just what I was thinking” moment.

        Is this a new idea? a new message? Sorta.
        It’s the link between the submerged idea, bringing it to light in proper focus, and generating action from it that is the basis for a lot of ads. That still works. Whether in broadcast, or social media settings.

        The true power of SM will be in bringing the conversations TO the marketers in the future, and allowing them to ply their magic trade of “focusing energies” onto the playing field. Once the proper focus is found, it can be quickly turned into broadcast once again, and we’re back to real ads with “umpphh”.

        So yes, ads have lost credibility, but no, they haven’t.

  14. what Tom says is very true..
    n bad advertising is not just waste of money,,, it actually depreciates the brand equity in the mind of consumers…
    n with consumers in control as i said earlier.. it very easy for them to just shut that advt off..

    n if a brand does come out with good ads..well then customers just lap them up.. n “follow” (pun intended) that brand..
    here’s n example of what vodafone did in India..
    n believe me people used to actually waited to watch for this “zoozoos” series of advertisements of vodafone ..

    so it’s actaully good that consumers now can just sort of filter useless info from the really creative ones..

  15. I wonder what the “average consumer” would think of this post. Honestly, they probably wouldn’t care.

    Look at the Superbowl. Why do most people watch the Superbowl? For the commercials. Yeah, the football is all fun and dandy, and the halftime show is usually a good time. But the commercials? Those are talked about for WEEKS after the game. There’s websites devoted to them!

    Now I totally agree with you about metrics. While the billboards on the side of the road may work, companies really have no way of knowing exactly how well they work.

    I don’t think the “average consumer” thinks for themselves; the media does. I think the bigger question might be how do we educate consumers more.

    1. All the superbowl commercials are a perfect example of my point. They’re there for entertainment, to let the consumer know, we’re a real brand and we’re legit. You think bud light telling us that their beer isn’t too heavy or too light makes us believe them thought?

      The average consumer has been very media driven, that’s true. But perhaps that’s what’s changing. The consumer is becoming more consumer driven, by trusting their peers and other customers before ads.

  16. well Tim Jahn.. consumers will be a ‘lil disappointed for Pepsi has given superbowl a miss this year..
    “average customer” thinks subconsciously for themselves.. they don’t disect n Ad or a Brand for using 4 P’s efficiently.. an average customer like or dislikes an Ad n moves on..
    the media has to think for itself..
    n media has to think/find out what is that the “average customer” is thinking albeit subconsciously..

    David which have been recent credible ads as per u..

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