Opinion

Advertising has become the Sean Spicer of capitalism

As the world makes a conscious shift away from spin and towards truth, Mike Edmonds argues that advertising needs to shake off its tendency towards hyperbole.

Remember Sean Spicer? He landed the job of Trump’s Press Secretary in a world turned transparent by technology and the internet.

It seemed every claim he made was soon exposed as gross exaggeration, every promise proven spurious.

But every day he got back up there behind that lectern and delivered more spin and hyperbole. He became a laughing stock. Seen as weak, ineffectual and delusional.

I fear advertising has become the Sean Spicer of capitalism. Think about it. We are the voice of free enterprise. We front up to the assembled masses as the anointed spokesperson for corporations. On their behalf, we mirror public sentiment to win its favour, we enhance product benefits and we try to have our master become everyone’s buddy. And just like poor old Sean, we’re doing it increasingly nervously.

“Hey everyone, fly the friendly skies!”

Cut to YouTube video of a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight.

“Hey folks, we’ve changed our logo to a flower because we’re the most environmentally-friendly oil company in the world.”

Cut to news footage of a massive oil spill killing animals and ruining lives.

I saw a TV commercial for an SUV last night that said it “will change my world”. No it won’t. Stop it. That kind of hyperbole makes me distrust brands even more. I watched an online video from a cola company about gender equality.

It was nice, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d only made it because it’s a hot topic. Just like that bank all those years ago that based its entire brand platform on sustainability. Until it suddenly didn’t anymore.

We have to do more as an industry to help our clients embrace truth in business. Advertising still has a role in the world, but it must be as an accelerant for the truth, not as a replacement for it.

We have to get out of the marketing department and into their boardroom to help them see creative business solutions that don’t exist yet, that will allow them to speak to consumers about genuine value, without spin or overstatement.

And the key word here is solutions, not messages. Despite the optimistic preachings of the more evangelical followers of conscious capitalism, consumers won’t buy from your clients simply because they have an authentic purpose. There just aren’t enough citizens who can afford to rise that high up Maslow’s Hierarchy. Yet.

No, the majority of consumers will buy from purposeful companies because of how well they prove they are genuine about achieving that purpose, by delivering better products, more intuitive human service design, by meeting unmet needs and providing value that we didn’t even know we needed.

The commercial viability of these outputs, the end result of authentic purpose, is phenomenal.

Whole Foods Market innovative product ideas and service initiatives continually outperformed the big supermarket chains in the US on customer satisfaction, customer retention, cost-per-acquisition and staff fulfilment. So much so that Amazon bought them for $17.7b.

Source: Wikipedia

Purpose-driven adventure company Patagonia is delivering so many cool new sustainable outdoor products its founder Yvon Chouinard has joined the fabled “three comma club” (personal wealth beyond a billion dollars).

More telling is how enduring this growth is proving. Forbes recently reported that employees who derive meaning from their work not only report almost twice the job satisfaction, but are three times more likely to stay with their organisation.

Any CEO will tell you that keeping your most profitable customers and your smartest employees are key to enduring business success in this crazy, always-on, ever-changing world we all now live in.

These are the kinds of companies that will save our industry. That will turn us from sophisticated snake oil salesmen into useful, trusted advisors. And if we don’t start advising our clients in this way our entire industry may end up like Sean… uh, Sean… what was that guy’s name again?

Mike Edmonds is founder-chairman of Meerkats Creative Business Solutions in Perth.

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