Funny how times change

Whatever happened to the advertising industry?



Back in the mid-19th Century when advertising was first a ‘thing’ it was generally considered to be the grubby occupation of hucksters, liars and cheats: people willing to do and say anything to get a quick sale.


Thankfully, those time are long gone; or so we thought.


If recent public sentiment is to be believed, advertising now sits at the foot of a list of professions (including politics and banking) that simply cannot be trusted.

How could we have possibly got into this state? Here are my thoughts…


Advertising used to be for snake oil salesmen, but, from its Victorian roots over the course of a century of increasing sophistication, the business of advertising slowly morphed into a respectable and credible industry. So much so that, by the late 1950's a job in advertising had become the definition of sophistication and glamour; well paid and sexy; mythologised in popular culture, envied by the masses and equal to any career in politics, industry or trade.

So what happened? What caused this drastic fall from grace, from heroes to villains unworthy of trust or respect?


Well, after many years of growth in both corporate value and social status, and not long after the turn of the Millennium something toxic entered the marketing ecosystem. Something which disrupted its delicate balance cultivated in adland: I'm talking of course about digital and social media.


As with Victorian advertising, when people first speculated about digital media the benefits for marketers seemed almost limitless. Unlike ‘conventional' methods, digital marketing could hit a target with the precision of a sniper's rifle at a fraction of the cost. What’s more, the effect of a direct hit could be measured in real time and anyone with a spreadsheet could begin o measure which version of an execution worked better until, finally through this ‘trial and error' approach the perfect ad could be found. It seemed too good to be true (Spoiler alert: it was).


Yet, just as with Victorian advertising, the lack of any historic or longitudinal data meant that digital marketeers could say whatever they liked, knowing their claims could not challenged, and knowing too that the seemingly sound metrics and science behind their approach made it a very tempting proposition to clients tired of watching 50% of the adverting budget go to waste blah blah blah.


Yet, things didn’t quite work out like that.

It's now 2021 and, leaving aside the question of whether digital marketing actually works, it’s certainly easy to demonstrate how the reputation and credibility of the advertising business is back to where it all began; effectively, on a par with hucksters, liars and cheats.

Isn’t this a little harsh?


Maybe it is. After all, modern marketers are surely not as unscrupulous as their 19th Century counterparts and the heads of the big social media platforms are hardly likely to sell cocaine-laced soft drinks or cigarettes to kids as their corporate predecessors had done in the past. Or are they?

Bob Hoffman's ‘Ad Contrarian’ post of 28th March 2021 refers to recent Group M research that suggests that. last year, Google, Facebook and Amazon made up half of the US ad spend. He also points out that "The ad industry, in the form of all the major advertising trade associations, are fighting to undermine a proposed Florida law that would allow consumers to opt out of certain types of personally targeted advertising.”

And what about the idea that big social media 'enabled the insurrection’? Bezos and Zuckerberg may claim they're 'protecting free speech’ through their inaction, but it’s no coincidence this high-minded argument also serves to protect their business models.

'But, but, but....' squeal the respectable ‘traditional’ wing of the advertising industry in righteous indignation.


‘Don't paint all marketers with the same brush. We aren't like those digital sharks. We promote emotional brand building, trusted relationships and lifetime customer value. In fact we spend most of our time trying to talk our clients out of buying snake oil.'

Well I'm sorry, but out here in the real world, people don't care. People outside of advertising don't draw a distinction between an intrusive on-line pop-up ad selling a betting company and an intrusive television ad selling a betting company. Advertising is advertising is advertising. And on the whole, it sucks.


In 1990, advertising execs were front and centre of public life; trusted advisers to governments and respected commentators on late-night TV. Out on the street, people would talk about the latest ads they'd seen; in any given focus group someone was bound to say 'some ads are better than the programmes.’ That's all gone now.


In 2022, advertising comes dead last in the list of professions ordinary folk feel they can trust. From this lowly position in the gutter of public life, advertising executives (as they used to be called) can now look up to the politicians, estate agents and bankers above them and watch as they enjoy the warm(er) glow of public respect. Not so the ad men.


As I say, it’s funny how times change.



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