Advertisers Are Doing It Wrong

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Don’t get too caught up in the extravagance of brilliant creative and leading edge advertising. It turns out consumers have no idea what we’re talking about.

Marketing professionals often forget what we really do: our main focus it to sell a product, brand or service. It begins and ends right there. Well, according to a recent study from the Council for Research Excellence, we’re not doing a very good job at it. The news item, It’s Not Just Age; ¾ of Americans Have Found TV Commercials Confusing, from MediaPost‘s Research Brief came out a couple of hours ago and the results should surprise (no, shock!) you:

"75% of Americans have found a commercial on TV confusing. 21% often find commercials on television confusing, while 55% say that TV commercials are not very often confusing. Just 14% say they never find commercials on television confusing, and 11% do not watch commercials on TV."

How can they buy from you if they don’t understand what you’re selling?

Run some quick math here: 21% find the commercials often confusing and 11% do not watch commercials. That’s 32%. That makes the classic John Wanamaker line, "half of my advertising works, I just don’t know which half," more scientific fact than comical turn of the phrase. You may also think that because there are so many new media choices that perhaps the relevance of television advertising is not as important as it once was.

You would be wrong.

Here’s another staggering stat from the Research Brief news item: "TV advertising and program promotions reach 85% of adults daily. Viewers typically see 26 advertising or promotional breaks, at an average of two minutes and 46 seconds per break, accounting for 73 minutes each day." While it’s easy to get lured into the frequency of messages that people see, take a re-read of that stat: 85% of adults daily are reached through TV advertising and program promotions. While we should never compare online advertising to TV advertising (they are two very different and distinct media), think about how far and deep TV advertising still burrows.

Why can’t we get it right?

What are we doing so wrong with advertising? Hasn’t it evolved? Some of it could be considered art (some of it has even been made into coffee books and some of it is highlighted in the same way the Nobel Peace Prize is through major award ceremonies). We celebrate our creative prowess and we raise a glass to increased sales and growing corporate margins, but what’s happening beneath the surface? While there are minimal differences when you look at the age or level of education, the problem still seems systematic. Advertisers are not being clear in what they want consumers to do.

Don’t forget the role of advertising in your marketing mix.

Marketers don’t like doing simple things because they feel like a simple message may mean that the work they do is simple or easy. That’s not the case. Never forget that if you have an opportunity to be on someone’s mind, you must clearly and definitively let them know why you are there. It reminds me of the classic Jeffrey Gitomer (author of The Sales Bible) line: "I put myself in front of people who can say ‘yes’ to me." Brands often forget that when they are in front of people, the idea is to get them to say "yes" to them… quickly and effectively.

What’s your take? Why are consumers so confused by advertising?


  1. I think part of the problem is that creative advertising agencies are selling two products at once every time they create a TV spot: one, their agency; two, the product they’re supposed to be selling. Until number one goes away, number two will always suffer.

  2. Spot-on. I’d be one of those 75%, if I didn’t skip the commercials with my DVR remote. My own un-scientific opinion is that marketers/advertisers are cramming way too many messages/visuals into their ads.
    As counterpoint, take Apple’s advertising. Simple, minimalist even. Streamlined and easy – like (they hope) their products. Very consistent across product lines, too. And Apple sales are doing pretty OK, right? 🙂

  3. And you are spot on, too, Andy. I would build on that Apple example and say that the better the product is, the less “creative” the ad needs to be. The product is the message in those gorgeous ads. No need for anything else to get in the way.

  4. You are right to point out that TV and social media are 2 very distinct mediums.
    I agree that TV advertising too often falls into the trap of going over the audience’s heads. Simple and to the point is a very effective strategy. Also, placement I see as a huge issue – I think there are a lot of sloppy placement buys in the market right now (take for instance the recent film Let Me In running ads during Sunday football. This is NOT the correct audience to be advertising that film to).
    Social media, on the other hand, is a great way to be a little more creative. Because it allows for such a great deal of interaction, the sky becomes the limit – as long as advertisers remember to engage.

  5. When we do work, we’re doing the best work we can for our client. We act as the Digital Marketing arm of their company (one they don’t have to house, build and maintain on their own). The interest in creating award-winning work (the kind that has results) is to do the best work possible for the client. I’m not sure I know many agencies who focus on #1. At least not many successful ones.

  6. As marketers, I think we tend to convince ourselves that the viewer is as informed about the rationale behind any idea or concept as we may be. Far from it.
    Take for example, the industry outcry over the recent GAP logo revision. Or the MySpace brand image. If it doesn’t resonate with the public at large, it really doesn’t matter how much research went into a simple design. We tend to manipulate all of these decisions based on our research, our brand initiatives, and our own egos.
    I agree with Will. Our ego is one of the main reasons we miss the mark. We forget how the viewer is engaging – which makes a huge difference in how they can absorb the message.
    We complicate a simple process through ego-driven creative – which simply isn’t received in the setting that it’s sent.
    And in this economy, with the stress many feel, we forget how simple, fun messaging can be. Quit selling the concept, start selling the values in a simple, basic way.
    And as blatant as it may feel – don’t forget to ask for the sale. (Easier said than done!)

  7. The moment I read this I thought about the most obscure kind of advertisement out there. Perfumes. I don’t remember having seen a single perfume adversiment without staring at the TV with a big “WTF” look in my eyes.
    There’s this ongoing trend of considering advertisements a form of art, and the more artsy (and obscure) you make them, the more awesome recognition you will receive. Which is the same for most festival kind of movie (Venice, Berlin, etc).
    I am a big fan of direct messages. The simpler the better.

  8. There’s a beautiful simplicity in advertising when the product is the actual marketing. No need for differentiators or made-up turns of phrases… it is what it is and it does what it does. How beautiful is that?

  9. While people have huge hopes for Google TV, if you look at how they’ve been handling TV advertising to date, it speaks directly to your comment. They help brands buy spots on the relevant shows at the relevant times. You would think that this is the baseline work for the major media companies and yet, still, we see them get this wrong time and time again.

  10. You are not only a symptom… you’re a freak based on these stats 😉
    It turns out that there’s only a small percentage of people completely tuning out (don’t worry, we still love your freaky self ;).
    That being said, I’m wondering if things like Apple TV or Google TV can win someone like you back?

  11. Would anyone argue with “simplicity wins”? I don’t think so. As creative and strategic types, we often think, “there has to be more!” When, in reality, there is no need for more. Start with simple and see how it goes. Most people can’t even do that.

  12. It is an interesting type of advertising because the truth is that it’s just scent and you can’t lie about it. So, how do they deal? They create allure. They create suspense and drama. They create feelings we would all like to have in our lives. They do this by hoping that people will believe that the perfume will do this to their lives. How else can they sell it?

  13. I tend to agree with the first comment above. There are too many agencies focused on #1 (themselves). At least that is the case with the local agencies that I have dealt with. Many are looking for a way to build their portfolio or bill the client more for production. When I took over as marketing director for the company that I am currently with, I was appalled at the things that we were spending money on (poor creative, random placement, a branding seminar). All things that could have been handled in house. The consulting work that I do on the side is all customer-centric. To add to the problem, agencies seem as if they are trying to produce “mini-movies”. That’s fine, but I don’t think the client necesarily needs to fund that project. We have all seen Nike commercials. They are hardly ever “selling shoes” on their ads. And when you are Nike, that’s fine. They have earned that right and that market share. The problem is, not many people are Nike. Most of the advertisers out there do not have spokespeople that transcend their industry. And most cannot afford (literally and figuratively) to make an artistic expression of that magnitude. I know that not all agencies think that way or like you said, they are not successful. How do they measure success? Revenue? Portfolio size? Size of their firm? Number of awards? All questions to ask before you hire an agency. As for confusing people with TV advertising…keep it simple. Quit overthinking and over-producing. And please buy time during programs that make since for the target decision making unit. We are in a time when who sees your ad is more important than how many see your ad.

  14. Haven’t advertisers always been too clever for their own good (or the good of the client)? Hasn’t it been direct marketers, and now Internet marketers, that have led the way in terms of persuasion selling, conversion, and buyer behavior/psychology?

  15. Which is exactly what makes them great agencies. I am willing to bet there are far fewer “great” agencies than there are mediocre or poor agencies. It is the great agencies work that you “get.” They are not confusing, you understand what they are trying to do from the beginning. Whether it is to sell shoes or motivate you to do something great like “write your own future.”

  16. … so we continue and soldier on doing this kind of evangelism so brands can better undertand/find the right agencies, or for agencies to use resources (like this) to up their game. Finger’s crossed!

  17. I’m a print media vet who has long been curious about the apparent inability for TV advertisers to recognize the inherent ability of TV commercials to motivate passive audience members to act online.
    For example, if I’m watching a football game and an advertiser wants to sell me a car, is it realistic that the advertiser will be successful? But if the advertiser wants to GIVE me a car and asks me to test drive one of its vehicles online within the next 24 hours. Well, I just might be inclined to do that after the game. Especially if I have a chance to win a car.
    And once I’m on the advertiser’s test drive platform, there’s another opportunity to GIVE me something to get me over to my local dealer.
    The bottom line is I don’t see much advertising on TV that gets me to jump online for that second chance opportunity to gut me to buy.
    Am I off base?

  18. You’re not off-base, but TV advertising isn’t a catch-all either. It can be used to build brand recognition and it can be used for direct response. There’s no right way to do advertising – it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The challenge is in doing whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish well. That seems to be the bigger issue at hand.

  19. I agree. I read a great quote once: ”Perfume has no ‘raison d”être – it has an ‘émotion d”être’. Because if it has a raison d”être, it would be a deodorant. ”
    And I believe this is very true. What perfume companies, (let’s take Chanel as an ultimate example) are selling is fantasy, mystery and emotion.
    Chanel keeps the same commercial for 3 years. 3 years! And releases it at times when no one is expecting it, perhaps Christmas, Mother’s day, (sometimes even father’s day!) or other general events throughout the year. This prompts all the qualities listed above.
    I may be a woman, but I am not one that succumbs easily to TV ads, and furthermore, I refuse to get cable. But I keep up with ads through youtube and online media.
    I think that the dream aspect of perfume ads is, while some would say ‘nonesense’, I would say that it adds value and a quality unique to this type of product.
    Let me conclude by saying : if you play a Chanel ad to a group of students 24 yrs + in a classroom, of men and women, no one is looking anywhere but at the screen.
    Mission accomplished.

  20. I agree to some extent that simplicity is the way to go.
    But let’s play the devl’s advocate for just a few minutes.
    When advertising first began, the industry went through several trends, the first being extremely utilitarian. All ads were based on fears (ex: insurance ads : YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE!) or health ads (YOU COULD HAVE CANCER RIGHT NOW!). Even toothpaste or Listerine ads were centered around health and hygiene, not ‘fresh breath’ or ‘beautiful teeth’. The Listerine bottle looked and tasted like pure medication and alcohol.
    When Scope came out witha better tasting mouthwash, no one was interested. Quebec especially argued ‘To do what it does, it has to taste how it tastes’ (awful). But this was the belief. And Listerine was the leading mouthwash for years.
    Until society started to evolve. Now advertising can’t get away without rxploiting the multiple strata inherent within our society.
    We need 1) Status. We need 2) Humour. We need 3) Community And we also need 4) Brand Utility. Not ONLY PRODUCT utility, but BRAND utility. There is an important distinction here.
    We are in an era where advertising is multi-dimensional, multi-meaningful, and multi-medium. It is interesting that in your article you focused solely on TV advertisement and not all the other possible mediums.
    While TV ads may often be confusing, we cannot solely evaluate the efficiency of an advertisement based on a TV ad. So much more comes into play today, and you Mitch, are very definitely on the very top of all of this social media stuff. So I don’t even need to be mentioning this.
    But what my question is to you, after all of this, is are we in an era where advertisers can still get away with marketing only the functional and not the aspirational? Would make-up sales still soar if companies convinced us we were all beautiful and there was nothing to strive for?
    Would car sales still soar if companies like the (Euro) Renault Dacia Logan continued to market only their functional and simplistic qualities?
    Or has society shifted, as a result of a weaker economy, a larger population, an ill planet, a surplus of pollution into a state where, the simplistic becomes the valued? The functions become the aspirations? If I can ‘get a couple more miles for my few cents worth of gas, and buy a car that my family can rely on for 3 years’ is this, in the eyes of a middle class family, a realization of their dream? Or is this ‘settling’. In the sense that , my aspirations would really be a lexus, but all I can afford is a Tata, or a Cruze? Or is the Logan, the Tata and the Cruze a dream come true to this emerging market?
    In the complex world of desires we currently live in, where auto companies, makeup lines, clothes lines etc continue to exploit and equate thin, sleek, and expensive with : status, excellence, etc, can simplicity really gain firm selling ground?

  21. This is all fine and dandy, but if the message is ultimately lost on the consumer, all is lost. We’re not talking about the creation of a brand persona here. A whole whack of people are confused by the ads. That ain’t good no matter how you slice it.
    As for Social Media, I’m not sure I would have much of an audience or digital footprint if the majority of people found my message confusing.

  22. I find this topic very interesting because I happened recently to ask myself what a waste of money may mass audience publicity be.
    I mean, this must be incredible to pay the big money and getting to be seen by people who might don’t care at all and find your publicity annoying. When I watch regular TV, I think I happen to be in the target audience of publicity only 1% of the time… I don’t hate publicity at all, but I would prefer it to be targeted. I’m more inclined to go through ads on the web. Ads on TV or in printed medias don’t often get me to go to their website as often as Internet ads. Easier on the web to catch an audience?
    I know there is much more to publicity than selling or reaching ONLY people that may use your product;, but isn’t mass publicity a loss of investment? Why do want to do it for, as a major brand? And for startups? What is the most efficient, measurable and targeted way to reach your audience when you don’t know who they might be? Is mass publicity more inclusive, with less chances of failing completely? Is targeted publicity less inclusive, with more chances of failing completely?

  23. Mass media advertising works… when done right. The audience is there and they do have attention for the messages that resonate.
    It’s not a zero-sum game, but we do owe it to the industry to look at new ways to create marketing engagement.

  24. I agree. In fact, it all seems like a matter of message. There is, like you said, a wide audience that can be receptive to messages (particularly on TV and Radio where the attention is more focused).
    But, in the end, the message had got to be really good, simple and to the point, to catch the audience. Advertisers must be very creative persons to do it so. It’s hard not to say to customers what you want them to think or realize about your product. Especially when you are not devoted at first into advertisement.
    This said, what I dislike the most about some advertisements is when they seem on another planet, they try to transmit you their philosophy of their products’ experience, especially when they try to make you join the gang, a movement, instead of letting you know why you should eat that super-immuni-everything-bio-yaourt!
    By the way, thanks for replying 😉

  25. A blend of everything… But what gets me the most is authenticity and an offer focused on community, sharing, make it by yourself, use this, make your life better the way you want to do it, etc. This focus on autonomy, on same-level relationships… that’s a very new, innovative and very FUN way of consuming or letting know about you.

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