Why did ads get so bad again?

Back when advertising was in its infancy - say, the mid-19th Century - it was considered a grubby little business best suited to liars, hucksters and cheats.

Surely no-one thinks that any more; or do they? (pause for dramatic effect…)

If recent surveys are to be believed, advertisers might once again be the pariahs of the business world - even less trustworthy than dodgy politicians and greedy bankers. So, even if this is only somewhat true, it's worth asking how on earth we allowed this happen, given we’re supposedly such clever people. Well, here are my thoughts…

Back in the day, a long time ago, working in advertising used to be one step up from a career selling snake-oil. As a new industry it was poorly understood and completely unregulated and practitioners could get away with just about anything and no-one could pull them up on their lies. Some terrible miscarriages of truth were perpetrated in the name of making a quick buck, as so many of these old ads attest. They'd be funny if they weren’t so awful.

Yet from these humble beginnings grew a venerated profession; so much so that, by the 1960’s, being 'in advertising’ was the definition of sophistication and glamour; sexy and well paid; mythologised in popular culture, envied by the masses. You could argue that, right up to the millennium, a job in advertising was still a career you might pursue instead of politics, finance or the law. So what went wrong? What happened in the last 20 years that could cause such a drastic fall from grace?

After many years of growth - built on a rich combination of psychology, sociology and economics - advertising suddenly hit a wall. It stopped being sexy.

What could have disrupted this sensual dance between human psychology and business strategy - sexily entwined on the twinkling dance floor of conspicuous consumption? Well it was the gatecrashers wasn't it... They burst in, turned on the lights, stopped the music and spoilt the fun. I'm talking of course about digital and social media.

Just as with early Victorian advertising, clients with something to sell could instantly see the benefits of this new form of media. Digital marketing could hit a target with the precision of a sniper's rifle; and the ‘ammunition’ - the on-line ads, banners and clickbait - were so cheap to make! What's more, it was easy to see which ads were working because you could practically measure responses in real time. Anyone with a computer and a spreadsheet could figure out through trial and error which ads triggered a response and which didn't. It all seemed too good to be true (Spoiler alert: it was).

And again, as with Victorian advertising, a lack of historic or longitudinal data meant digital marketeers could say or do more or less whatever they liked, knowing they wouldn't be challenged. (a small taste of which is covered by this Mark Ritson video here - there are so many other examples I could have used) Not that the clients needed much persuading. Thanks to digital, the marketing budget could now be halved, and none of the remaining money needed to be spent on Caribbean photo shoots. Digital would finally answer the age old question “I know that half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; but I don't know which half”. Well now they did apparently.

Spool forward to 2021 and, leaving aside the question of whether digital marketing actually works, it’s clear the reputation and credibility of advertising as a whole is shot. No-one believes it any more and no-one trusts the people pumping the stuff out. So, effectively, we’re back to being an industry of hucksters, liars and cheats.

A little harsh maybe? Perhaps, after all, modern marketers aren’t 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. Or are they?

Bob Hoffman's ‘Ad Contrarian’ post of 28th March 2021 refers to a recent Group M study which 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.” Doesn’t sound too sexy if you’re on the receiving end does it?

And what of the idea that Big Media 'enabled the insurrection’? Zuckerberg shakes his head at this and claims he is 'protecting free speech’; but it’s hardly a surprise to find this laissez-faire approach also protects his revenue model.

Yes, but....' Say the respectable (i.e. ‘traditional’) wing of the advertising industry.

‘You’re painting all marketers with the same brush. We aren't like those digital sharks. We promote emotional brand building, trusted relationships and lifetime customer value. We make nice ads on the telly and we spend the rest of our time trying to talk our clients out of buying snake oil.'

Well I’m sure that’s true but out here in the real world people don't care. People outside the advertising bubble don't draw a line between the intrusive on-line pop-up ads they have to wade through on YouTube and the intrusive 30 second ads they have to sit through waiting for a football match to start on TV. To the man in the street, advertising is advertising is advertising. And on the whole, it pretty much all sucks.

In 1990, advertising execs were front and centre of public life; trusted advisers to governments, respected commentators on late-night TV, doyens of the business press. Out on the street, people would laugh about the latest funny TV ads and in any given focus group someone would always say 'some ads are better than the programmes.’ But that's all gone now.

In 2021, advertising comes dead last in the list of professions people feel they can trust. From this lowly position in the gutter of public life, advertising executives (as they used to be called) can look up to the politicians, estate agents and bankers enjoying the warm(er) glow of public respect and ask themselves ‘how did we get here?’

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

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