Good advertising or bad advertising? Which is better?

A bit of a ramble exploring the dark side of an industry built on consumerism.

I was talking to my son the other day. He asked me why I worked in marketing. He thinks that marketing is exploitation. Consumerist. Capitalist.

Not good for society. Or the planet.

He’s a teenager and idealistic. But he’s got a point.

Capitalism (and marketing) encourages consumption of resources. It feeds greed. Persuades us to want stuff that we can’t necessarily afford. Or at least to spend more than we need to.

I suppose that’s the point of advertising. It’s persuading people to buy stuff that they might not otherwise have bought. It’s about influencing their thinking, changing their behaviour. Selling stuff.

In some cases, it’s about persuading them to buy your toilet paper rather than someone else’s toilet paper (they were going to buy the toilet paper anyway – we’re just helping them make a choice).

And sometimes we’re persuading people to buy stuff they didn’t even know they needed.

We might be selling products that aren’t good for our health, or that contribute to climate change. Encouraging us to get everything delivered to our homes within the hour / same day / next day, raising our carbon footprints, suffocating our high streets, filling our oceans with plastic.

‘Good’ advertising fuels consumerism. It makes us do bad things.

‘Good’ advertising is the campaign that changes buying behavior. Or reinforces it. Good advertising makes us want more than we need. Good advertising makes us crave the next new model.

It’s the tool of the evil capitalist.

But thankfully, most advertising isn’t ‘good’. Most advertising is bad. In fact, most advertising is complete and utter crap.

I’m not talking about ads that are spectacularly misjudged, or misogynistic. I’m not talking about unfortunate ad placement, like the ad for The Walking Dead that appeared outside a Co-op Funeralcare shop. There are plenty of examples of that kind of thing – the ads that get talked about for all the wrong reasons (but at least they’re getting talked about, right?).

No, I’m talking about lazy advertising – advertising that fails to engage, entertain, or persuade. Worse still, advertising that doesn’t even get noticed.

It’s not easy to get noticed. No-one is saying it is.

When the average consumer is bombarded with (let’s say) 10,000* marketing messages every single day, your advertising has to be pretty bloody good to grab any attention from Joe Public.

10,000 messages is an extraordinary figure and hard to fathom. Whether the number is accurate or not doesn’t actually matter (why let the truth get in the way of a good story?), the fact is that that we are exposed to a LOT of advertising – on TV, through social media channels, on bus sides, posters, radio. Product placement in film and telly. Messages from influencers and bloggers. Remarketing.

And then there’s newspapers and magazines.

And direct mail.

And email.

Signs hanging from scaffolding. Ads on vans and lorries. Cinema ads. The high street (remember that?)

The list is endless.

Well, not ENDLESS, but it’s long.

But just because we’re ‘exposed to’ these messages, doesn’t mean we SEE any of them.

And even if we see them, how many do we actually notice? And if we do notice them, how many times do we need to see them before we remember them? And even if we remember them, how well do they actually influence our behaviour?

Getting your message to cut through the noise in a saturated market is hard. There are more marketing messages out there than we can even count, let alone process.

‘Bad’ advertising (the stuff that fails to get noticed) just adds to the white noise that most of us have successfully learned how to screen out.

Back in 1885, Thomas Smith wrote an advertising frequency theory. In short, he explained that consumers need to see your ad 20 times before they buy the product. Advertising frequency builds trust.

That was a long time ago, and when Smith was talking about ads, he was largely talking about newspaper advertising and posters.

So building that trust would clearly take some time. 20 days of seeing the same ad in the newspaper or walking past a poster on the way to work. Of course, it’s different now – with the channels available to us it’s entirely feasible to hit a consumer with the same advertising message 20 times in a single day.

Clearly, the objective of any advertising should be to get cut through earlier – to get noticed after just one exposure, to become familiar and trusted more quickly – to deliver sales from a lower ad frequency (and lower cost).

But when your advertising is bad, you’ll have to repeat your message more often in order for anyone to take notice; and you’ll have to spend more and more money until the world is so full of your awful ads that people buy your product just to get you to stop. Bad advertising means mor profits for the media owners.

Higher quality advertising makes for lower cost sales, driving higher profits.

So hang on…

Good advertising fuels capitalistic greed and profiteering (in the words of a teenage idealist), and bad advertising lines the pockets of media owners? Good advertising means more profits for the advertiser and bad advertising is simply helping the media companies to make even more?

So good or bad, either way, the evil capitalist wins.

We’re all doomed.

Unless you’re advertising a charity or not-for-profit, in which case (a) well done and (b) ‘good’ is definitely the route for you.

*No one really knows how many messages we’re ‘exposed to’ every day. And anyone who says they know the answer is making it up.