Marketing In 2019: Truth

Marketing In 2019: Truth

“When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.” - Federal Trade Commission

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It speaks volumes about the industry that many marketers carry the stigma of dishonesty so willingly. More than a few technically good campaigns have proven dead on arrival for no other reason than the audience didn’t believe the messaging. A great example (and constant source of Coke-enthusiast glee) is the infamous Kylie Jenner Pepsi ad from 2017. At first it seems innocuous; attractive designs, professional composition, diverse people. There’s lots of laughing and dancing, and it ends in a “victory.” Everything about it is technically appealing, so why the backlash? Because this ad simply isn’t true. The central tension is a protest against nothing. The main characters risk nothing and are rewarded in kind.

Even putting all that aside, the premise is ridiculous on principle of the product. Pepsi doesn’t heal cultural divides! If it did, neither violent protests nor fascist regimes would be a concern, yet it’s the very prevalence of this issues that inspired the ad in the first place. Viewers inherently know this, they know the piece is being earnest and not ironic, and they feel like they’re being taken for suckers. The ad appeals to everyone while reaching no one because it ultimately says nothing, offending the people whose trappings it saw fit to borrow.

Truth in advertising seems like an oxymoron anyway, right? Is it even possible? Yes, in three ways.

Hyper-Meta And Overly Honest

Simple, clean, and appealing to younger, more cynical audiences, some ads imply brand transparency by deconstructing the premise of commercials entirely. A few of these pop up every year, and they work well according to their purposes. Well-considered ones, like Nordnet and RX Bar, take this track to directly confront the concerns of their audience. They affirm those concerns by implying that their competition are perpetrators of dishonesty while simultaneously creating distance with the industry. This style is the simplest to conceptualize and react to, ironically also making it the easiest to fake.   

Product Studies

Information-driven honesty is a classic style, perfect for brands less interested in edging out competition and more motivated by on-boarding the ignorant. Examples are vital to this style, as the truth in question is purely proof of concept. Esoterically, these are also great at asserting new realities, e.g., that technology has advanced, new knowledge has been discovered, you don’t have to suffer, etc.

A great example is Adobe’s line of YouTube ads that double as tutorials. They’re simple, informative, and they carry subtext well. Adobe teases their customers with the truth, namely “Anyone can do this. Anyone can be creative.” Audiences walk away from good product studies ready to buy into a truth in which they can participate.

Existential Emotion

Bigger commitments call for bigger emotional appeals. These types of ads are common with big-ticket items like cars, fancy tech, and insurance. Audiences are made to grapple with their priorities and subsequently change their lifestyle.

There’s no better place to go for emotional ads than John Lewis. In this case, their most recent Christmas piece, staring Elton John. They’re selling pianos, but what truth is there to “piano?” And even as the ad leans into using one of Elton John’s best songs, they’re also not selling music because even music isn’t a truth, per say. The collection of scenes creates a vision deeper than plucked strings and screaming crowds, although it celebrates those parts too. Music as a creative force has been with John since the beginning, this ad implies. It asks, “is there anything outside of myself?”  Something bigger than Christmas time, more sustaining than cross-country tours, and more fulfilling than a Las Vegas show. The story is what music means to Elton John. Viewers, by extension, grapple with what desires and passions persist across the course of their own lives, and if they don’t have one, they might wonder if music, and in turn a piano, might be just the thing to fill that void.

Truth resonates, and what resonates sells.

Take a step back even further and ask the hard question: why does your company exist? The answer to that might be “to end world hunger” or it might be “to sell hammers.” Both are good! World hunger needs to be ended, and people will probably need hammers to do it. The key to your messaging is buried in your company’s purpose. If your messaging is honest with people and your competitor isn’t, you’ll win every time.

Hunter Smith