April 3, 2012

I bet I could do a better job myself...

From Daniel Jalkut, of Red Sweater Software. (I'm writing this post on his excellent blogging client, MarsEdit.) Red Sweater Blog – The End Of Advertising:

...In the history of the world so far, there has been considerable opportunity for advertisers to misguide customers, and to lure their money toward products or services that can be framed as perfect for them, even when they are not. That’s the art and the holy grail of advertising. [I don't agree that advertising is aimed at misleading. That's reflexive lefty malarky. But it is usually poorly designed, truth-wise.] But going forward, technology will offer customers and companies the tools to connect effortlessly, optimizing for compatibility without the help of the bogus, outdated advertising system.

Most of us base purchasing decisions on vague hunches derived from a mix of advertising influences, word-of-mouth, and the relative trendiness of a product. But more and more as customers we are cutting out the advertising middle-man, in favor of systems based on education and trust. Amazon is a good example of this. With the notable exception of their Kindle line of products, they have little concern about which products their customers buy. It only matters that they buy things, and that they buy things often. They provide detailed product information, and allow honest, often scathing reviews. The goal is for customers to make self-serving decisions. In this case, defying the advertisers’ best interests is in Amazon’s best interest as well.

Extrapolate the technology-assisted consumption process out over the next 10, 50, 100 years, and I have a hard time imagining a meaningful role for conventional advertising. If I search Google for “lawnmower,” it’s not interesting that some tractor company has paid Google for the privilege of putting their brand’s information at the top of the list. At some point in the future, customers will assume that companies who choose to advertise conventionally are afraid of the outcome when consulting various self-empowering resources. Where am I more likely to search for “lawnmower?” If I want to know what a lawnmower is, Google. If I want to know which lawnmower to buy? Amazon, or another site that strives to empower customers, not advertisers.

I do worry about what happens to some of our beloved, advertising-driven services. We’ve all grown accustomed to the subsidization of news reporting and analysis. In recent decades, advertising has crept further into our lives, even subsidizing municipal infrastructures such as public transit. What impact will the end of advertising have on these important services?

In the old world, technology for connecting customers directly to companies did not exist, so companies were satisfied in buying advertising. It is tool that serves to expose customers to the concept of a product, and to crudely attempt to educate them about the suitability of the product for their purposes.

In the new world, mass-exposure will be replaced by social networking, and education will be not only replaced by, but massively bolstered by trusted systems such as Amazon’s review database, Consumer Reports, and other much better stuff that is presumably coming in the future. Presumably? It has to be coming, and it has to be better, because everything’s riding on it....

Me, I don't think advertising is dying. Or, rather, I think it doesn't have to die. It needs to be re-invented. This is a subject that bugs me a lot, because I'm frequently frustrated by advertising that doesn't give me what I need to know. I have often been in the position of having a need, and having money to spend to satisfy the need...... and not being able to find the information I need to make a purchase.

Problem is, most products are usually advertised as being, as Mary Poppins put it, "practically perfect in every way." Of course that's absurd. Most products are good within some particular niche. My chain saw gets used once or twice a year. So I don't want a super chainsaw. I bought the inexpensive consumer-grade saw that merely does an adequate job, and would die if used daily.

But no ad will tell you that. It's taboo. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think I'd react very positively to an ad that said that "Product X will do A, B and, in a pinch, C. But it's NOT designed to do E, F, or G. We think X is a good compromise between affordability and number of features."

If you find a good review of an intended purchase, you are delighted. Right? The reviewer gives you pluses and minuses. He tells you what the product feels like. It's charms and its warts. SO, tell me, brothers and sisters, why can't ads be written in the same way???

I've been asking that question for a long time, and I never get an answer. (And yes, of course there are products that need to be sold by the sizzle, not the quality of the steak. You don't sell perfume or soda pop or wedding dresses with plusses and minuses. But still, there are tons of things where what I want is just some simple information. Some straight talk.

Much of the problem, I think, is that an advertising agency is an Industrial Age organization. Much like a newspaper. The idea of a "reporter" was always flawed, because in most cases the guy can't know enough about whatever situation he's reporting on at the moment. We used to have to rely on reporters, but now, if, say, a legal issue is in the news I can read the blogs of a multitude of law professors. How many reporters can compete on that playing field? Most reporters just look like fools.

It's the same with advertising. Suppose you hire a advertising agency to sell a Vertical Panel Saw to me. That's crazy, because I, a cabinetmaker, know more about the subject than 99.9% of advertising people. They will just write up some puffery and pretty pictures—because they don't know enough.

If you hired me to write that ad, I would go to real shops that use those tools, and interview them. And then I'd write ads that are like mini-articles, where real people talk about the plusses—and yes, the minuses—of machines they work with every day. About the gritty reality of using them. I bet people would just eat that up.

Posted by John Weidner at April 3, 2012 10:45 PM

Well, CS Lewis called advertising all lies and he was no lefty.

Intelligent people want customer reviews, but most people hardly care

Posted by: Gian at April 4, 2012 4:01 AM

Sadly, I think Gian had it right. We actually tried your strategy for our product and it did not work well. We had check list "you need this product if your situation has factors A, B, C. Otherwise, not so much". Apparently, like grades and reference letters, everything has been so inflated for so long that anything less than glowing means shoddy.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 4, 2012 6:07 AM

Those are interesting comments. Perhaps I'm just too intelligent    ;-)

And perhaps my other thoughts have been tried, and failed. But it still seems to me that there is big potential for ads that are like reviews, or customer reviews. Or like how-to pieces. That is, ads that are like a conversation, rather than like broadcasting.

Posted by: John Weidner at April 4, 2012 10:33 AM

Gian, I think Lewis was simply wrong. And it is not a matter of Left or Right. Rather, it's because he was an academic, and simply didn't know what he was talking about.

I, frankly, am more reliable on this than CS Lewis. I'm a business owner (very small scale to be sure) and the son of a business owner, and grandson of one. And I've read a lot about business. I've read many books, and I was for decades a subscriber to Forbes. And most of this material was "internal conversations" of the business world; not pieces aimed at the general public.

And I have yet to encounter any business-world insider express in any way the idea that advertising should try to deceive anyone. Or give the impression that deception was common or expected.

Posted by: John Weidner at April 4, 2012 10:45 AM

I am a great admirer of C.S. Lewis's apologetics and his literary achievements, but the man was hopelessly provincial in many ways. He never learned to drive a car, and apparently could not add the same numbers together twice without arriving at two different answers.
Lewis wrote a review of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that was downright embarrassing. He thought that Orwell had made the focus of the novel the relationship between Winston Smith and Julia as a nod to modern, prurient tastes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Winston Smith-Julia pairing was essential to the novel because it demonstrated that the totalitarian state was threatened by the simple, ancient act of two humans creating a dependency based on mutual care, need and desire. Together they could create a world in which Big Brother had no place, and that Big Brother could not allow.
Orwell's message wasn't subtle. It is amazing that Lewis, with a deserved reputation as a subtle and deep reader of Medieval and renaissance literature, could have missed it.

Posted by: Terry at April 4, 2012 3:28 PM
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