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Spinning out of control

by Jane Caro
01 November 2012
Vodafone Egypt claiming credit for the Arab Spring. Advertisers hoodwinking consumers with purportedly genuine and unscripted happenings that turn out to be paid-for ads. Fake protests. Pop ups as unlikely venues are taken over to promote a product.

These are just a few recent examples of the desperate measures corporations take to try and attract attention to their wares.  Forget ethics, honesty or even common sense. In recent times, major advertisers have lost the plot. As sponsors jumped on and off serial shock offender Kyle Sandilands, Qantas’ hubris was off the charts, with the company trying to entice positive Twitter posts from the travelling public by offering a first-class amenities bag and pair of PJs.

These are desperate times for marketers. Their carefully constructed worlds of psychometrics, segmentation, market research and pseudo-science are collapsing around their ears. With their lame attempts to turn into a science something that is fundamentally an art, human communication, the unimaginative, timid and insecure practitioners are spinning round in circles wondering what to do next.

Once, marketing was fairly simple if you had a big budget. You just made a bland and inoffensive commercial that ticked all the marketing mandatories, or even better, imported a commercial from overseas with a change of voice over. You then stuck it on the three free-to-air channels in peak viewing time with a hefty media spend behind it and, hey presto, you could actually bore consumers into buying your product.

They might not remember your ad, but by dint of simple repetition, they certainly remembered your brand name. As a big brand marketer, you had the money. So you had access to the media and that put you in control. If you came in contact with consumers at all, it was in the controlled environment of the focus group, where a psychologist would ensure that responses fitted your requirements as you observed behind a two-way mirror.

Even if the great unwashed said negative things in the privacy of the focus group, who cared? As long as you supplied the trade with special deals and offers, you could command their purchasing that way. Sure, it was expensive, but it worked and it was low risk.

Now, the media has fragmented to such an extent that you no longer have any idea where to put your ads. Free-to-air remains expensive but delivers only a fraction of the viewers. Ads online are easy to ignore. If you do manage to impose them on to a website visitor, they irritate and are quickly closed down.

You try text messaging (damn that delete button), consumer competitions, direct mail (1% response is considered excellent), and dip a nervous, middle-aged, middle-brow toe into the dangerous waters of Twitter and Facebook. Ad agencies (also totally at sea with the new media environment) charge you a king’s ransom to bore you rigid with fancy Powerpoint presentations about the power of social media and the next big thing that you don’t really understand.

And still your sales limp along to the extent that Coles and Woolies—also having lost faith in the power of brands—threaten to delete you and replace your product with one of their own labels.

As a long-time advertising practitioner, I dragged myself along to a digital marketing conference recently to get up to speed. I happened to sit next to another old warhorse. The two of us were open mouthed as we were confronted with presentations about successful social marketing campaigns that had resulted in—wait for it—the sale of 200 packs, or a few percentage points rise in brand awareness.

In the old days, if a mainstream ad campaign I wrote didn’t sell 10,000 units, I was in trouble. And this is exactly where most marketers are these days and they are totally ill-equipped to deal with it because they are still attempting to stay in control.

The power in communications has moved entirely to consumers, or at least to those consumers with access to the internet. The internet is a wild, chaotic, anarchic universe without morals or hierarchy. Porn and celebrity (preferably combined) rule the day.

Arrogant corporations, used to imposing their own priorities on a relatively compliant audience, continue to try and make their customers feel what they want them to feel and seem completely bewildered when, instead, they cop a barrage of angry, resentful and often hilariously funny insults in response. Then, like typical bullies, they collapse like a pack of cards and rush about saying sorry and promising never to do it again, until the next time.
Successful conversations take place when people approach one another with the right intentions, with genuine respect, with a lightness of touch, with humour and the candour and honesty to challenge the powerful when necessary.

Like a newly-divorced, middle-aged man with a comb over, they try to get down with the young folks and in with the hip crowd, but their real agenda seeps through. They don’t want to actually communicate; have an honest, open and respectful two-way conversation. They want to dominate and control, to use social media to make their customers do, think and feel what they want them to. Once, they could use their money to do just that, but ad spend no longer has power.

Despite the nasty side of much that is popular on the internet, my great hope is that it gives ordinary people a voice. It gives them the power to reject manipulation, fakery and insincerity. And online, people are seeing through the bland, soothing tones of the corporation or the regime or church or whatever. For example, on Twitter, the pithy, withering remarks in 140 characters fired right back at corporations are, quite frankly, a joy to watch.

When the odd advertiser gets it just right, they reap the rewards. The latest Benetton campaign shows world leaders kissing one another. This is advertising gold. The campaign manages to combine great ethical values, preaching brotherhood and peace with a genuinely subversive and demanding message about the acceptability of all kinds of human love and expression. The fact that the Pope threatened to sue unless Benetton removed his image from the campaign just drove its message home even more successfully.

Communicating via the internet and social media is not about being nice. Nor is it about being compliant or bland and inoffensive. Good messaging, whether commercial, political or personal, never is. It is about being honest, true and real. Successful conversations take place when people approach one another with the right intentions, with genuine respect, with a lightness of touch, with humour and the candour and honesty to challenge the powerful when necessary.

Former advertising executive Jane Caro wears many hats including author, lecturer, mentor, social commentator, columnist, workshop facilitator, speaker, broadcaster and award-winning advertising writer. Jane is a regular guest on the ABC’s show about advertising, The Gruen Transfer.