Is Advertising Any Good? The RSA Debate On Advertising & The Consumer

With the natural hyperbole so common in advertising Dudley Moore highlights perhaps an inconvenient truth – that advertising is mostly not honest. But does that make it a bad thing?

In Dudley Moore’s classic 1990 movie ‘Crazy People’ the lead character, an ad-executive called Emory Leeson, hits on a novel idea for his new series of advertising campaigns: just tell the truth and stop the schmaltz and corny ads. His line for Volvo? ” They’re Boxy – But They’re Good”. And an on-message line to  help promote the Greek tourism industry? “The French Can Be Annoying: Come to Greece – We’re Nicer”. Well, they do say all comedy is truth.  And of course, with the natural hyperbole so common in advertising Dudley Moore highlights perhaps an inconvenient truth – that advertising is mostly not  honest. But does that make it a bad thing?

Well - This Is True, Isn't It?

The Advertising industry is not everyone’s favourite cup of fair trade organic peppermint tea – and the recent debate at The RSA‘Advertising In Society – What’s The Deal’ – offered the chance for a healthy exchange of views. Its premise was whether the consumer was ‘getting a good deal’. As the invitation said “what is the unwritten compact between society and marketer and does it need to change?” It was an interesting discussion and dialogue – but from where I sat, there was far too much agreement from the panel on the general worrisome nature of advertising and the horrific march of consumerism.

Certainly the panel certainly had some heavyweight research and thinking. Mark Lund, co-founder and managing partner, Now agency and former CEO of the COI; Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at London Business School and chairman of Which?; Jon Alexander, co-author of the WWF-UK,/ PIRC report “Think of Me as Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising” – and Ed Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK. Call me old fashioned – and perhaps its a moot point worthy of a debate – but I always think a debate requires some strong opinions on both sides. The debate was certainly interesting but apart from Patrick Barwise there was simply too many shades of agreement. Comments that the advertising industry was populated by men with braces and large glasses tended to suggest a view of the industry that was strangely stuck in1981 rather than 2011. Lund pointed out that advertising is a vital part of the capitalist system and that it was the lifeblood of a free media.  Its worth adding that it was commercial newspapers that uncovered the truth about MP’s expenses and the sleaze of phone tapping – not any state broadcaster, regulatory body, pressure group or quango. And Lund made the excellent point that ‘most agree advertising works – but just not on them’. (At a guess, I would imagine most parents in attendance at a debate at The RSA are not going to suddenly rush out and buy a lot of frozen ready meals for Xmas and drag the kids to McDonalds because they’ve been subjected to ads on the telly). Patrick Barwise pointed out that planned economies simply do not innovate. And Jon Alexander saw advertising as dangerously out of control and even hinted that it ‘was the next banking’. Is it really? Somehow I can’t see advertising destabilising the global economy through reckless lending and creating massive burdens for the tax payer. The advertising industry may produce some irresponsible adverts – and annoying jingles but it is not the next banking industry. What it is – is the next music industry.

Technology Changes Everything…

The traditional music business relied for too long on 1950’s style economics and for many years it was on to a good thing. It was happy to see other industries invest in different technology, from cable TV to music players, whilst they reissued back catalogue and used restrictive agreements to keep artists in line. Technology changes everything. Technology as Kevin Kelly (Founding editor of Wired) pointed out is a adapting organism – it grows, merges and moves. The result is that the biggest music player on the planet now – is a computer business from Palo Alto – called Apple. CNN reports that over ten years the US music industry shrunk from revenues of $14 Billion in 1999 – to $6.3 Billion in 2009. The same decline is highlighted by PRS in publishing and live revenues too. And whilst the industry still seeks to sell per units – a business like Spotify is adding 500,000 new subscribers per month. And Apple is expected to make $13 Billion in 2013 from its iTunes music downloads alone – a business it only started in 2001. Futurist thinkers such as Gerd Leonhard have pointed out that the music industry will either have to adapt – or it will perish, as technology and consumers become the new powers. It did not adapt to a new environment and a mix of lifestyle changes, technology innovations and low-cost media options meant their traditional power declined. The real story is not that there is a shortage of songwriting talent crop failure a sudden decline in boy bands – it was that the industry did not adapt quick enough. For the media (and advertising) industry – the music business is the canary in the mine, the early indicator of troubles ahead. For marketing and advertising are facing the same changes that swamped the music business.

Technology is creating a new landscape that is less about pushing messages and promotions – and more about engaging, informing. If you do not do that – then you’re going to find it tough as a marketer. In one click you can ignore a brand. You can buy a SIM and then choose your phone – often based on what your friends tell you rather than what the adverts say. The biggest change and challenge to advertising will not be regulation and control, as Jon Alexander and Ed Mayo seem to favour. No. It will be the rise of internet television, TIVO, user controlled content, browsers that block adverts, parent controlled web browsing and private web spaces in the Cloud. Irresponsible and bad advertising will not need to be controlled or regulated – it will be filtered, shifted, blocked and ignored by the consumer’s choice of software and devices that will use powerful semantic tools. So what does this shifting advertising landscape mean for consumers? Its a good thing. The two best definition of marketing I know are firstly – ‘Marketing = Serving Customers Profitably’. And secondly – ‘Marketing = Keeping Your Promises’. There is a simple and fundamental truth to these definitions that some perhaps in advertising have forgotten over the years of massive brand campaigns and two-for-one promotions. And that is where perhaps the critique of Jon Alexander and Ed Mayo have a fair point. Good marketing is not about Machiavellian scheming, shoddy products, huckster hype, dodgy deals and rogue trading. Good marketing is about managing the relationships that are the source of your success: your customers and your suppliers – and making a decent margin whilst you do so. And spending money on creating bad and irresponsible advertising is not serving customers profitably and it’s not good marketing. It’s just dumb.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The smartest new marketing propositions have ignored the traditional lure of producing glossy brand advertising. They’re not dumb. Disruptive brands such as iTunes, Spotify, and Easy Jet changed the value chain and changed the game. Was it good for the consumer? The result is that people obtained cheaper products and services and cut out the middle men. From low-cost access to music to discounted flights and cheaper car insurance. This kind of new marketing is about embracing new technology investing in progressive product innovation rather than trying to win awards at industry galas with glamorous brand ads. It is disruptive. And the media industry itself will face similar disruptive challengers too. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) reports that digital media is now growing at 13% per annum and that it now accounts for 27% of a total media spend of £16 Billion. Television is now 26%. In the US – digital media is said to be growing at 32% per annum. And just two weeks ago a new computer game, Call Of Duty – Modern Warfare 3 generated £490M of sales in five days with very little traditional marketing and TV promotion. To put this into perspective – that is almost as much as the entire UK digital newspaper industry generates – in a year. I found this out about this from my free business blogs & feeds – downloaded on to a tablet whilst I skipped past TV ads.

The rise of TIVO, internet enabled television, free Wi-Fi and a proliferation of cheap handsets will only accelerate the trend. Mass advertising will have a place – but it will be a smaller place. And with apologies to the great Gil Scott-Heron, the social revolution really will not be televised: it will be downloaded and watched on a tablet, at a time to suit you and very likely – without any sponsorships or commercial messages. It will not be a middle-aged ad man from Soho (with or without glasses) who will be calling the tune. It will be you.

For more information on partnership marketing and innovation please see Benchstone Limited.

For more comments and articles by Andrew Armour please visit




Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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