Advertising, a Love Letter: Time to Get Back on Track

Consumers Respond to Truth Above All, It's Why They Become Loyal

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I have been in love with advertising since I was in my late teens. I was fascinated by the way it made tangibly real the ideas and emotions of literature and art. People actually got paid to be creative and inspirational! The greats who practiced it were my role models, and their lives of cultural engagement and personal panache something to envy. My subscription to this magazine was the only one in my dorm, if not my entire college, and every summer was spent working at agencies doing anything to learn the business. I was a messenger. Wrote annual report copy. Handcrafted ad layouts. I produced ad campaigns for local businesses during my senior year, then headed to New York City after graduation to find a job. That was 30 years ago.

Based on everything I know and have learned since about advertising, I have good news: We have a glorious future together, but it's going to require some changes in our relationship.

I say change because that future has nothing to do with innovation, meaning, or any other buzzworthy "new" rules that are conveniently sold as strategy. It won't rely on glib definitions of consumer behavior like "consuming content" or "engaging with brands," or depend on consumers having evolved into a new species because of technology.

Instead, it will require us to come to terms with the reason why businesses have always spent money on communications, which is to sell stuff. And the best way to sell things is to tell the truth. Creatively. Dramatically. Persuasively. But truthfully, and in ways that make sure people understand and can rely on it. The case for truth is simple: Truth is why consumers decide to buy things, are satisfied with their purchases, and become loyal customers. It's why ads worked 50 years ago, and why they'll work 50 years from now. Truth is the key to making advertising -- all of it, via any channel -- the common denominator to customer-relationship equations once again.

When the Don Draper character in a trailer for "Mad Men" says, "Trust me, I'm in advertising," you can't help but chuckle. But what if it weren't a nostalgic joke? What if consumers really did believe advertising? Like I said, it's going to be a change.

By "advertising" I mean any speech for which brands pay, so it ranges from ultra-commercial promos to un-commercial social-media confabs. The truth is that however we talk to them, we do so because we want to sell them things, not be their friends, entertain them, or necessarily change the world. And guess what? Consumers know it. Sure, they enjoy a good laugh or appreciate a well-argued opinion, but fundamentally they're looking for truth from brands that boils down to the who, what, where, when, and why of products and services. We have the opportunity to use advertising to contribute to that awareness and understanding. Only we're usually too smart for that .

We think truth is subjective. It's a POV or a slice of reality for us to exploit, so we spend our dollars and creative intelligence coming up with attributes that aren't real or ownable (like Chrysler's latest "Halftime" spots that try to make the brand synonymous with America), or elevating small ones into bigger ones (pick any oil company and ask yourself how seriously they're committed to conversations about our energy future). Much of what fills ads is simply entertainment and little else, with the hope that a chuckle will bleed over to brand favorability (beer companies, anyone?).

If we say it, it's true, right? I mean, the stuff is regulated, so advertising can't lie.

The problem is that the opposite of truth in advertising isn't falsehood, it's the absence of truth. It's beautiful, funny, sexy, meaningful neutrality, and it's why consumers have moved to social-media platforms (they haven't embraced social as much as run away from ads). The peer-to-peer mechanism of social technology allows people to sift through and vet all the truth-agnostic crap we create in hopes of influencing them, and thereby make decisions for themselves.

There's nothing wrong with advertising; what's wrong is how we use it.

The case for truth doesn't require a deep philosophical debate. It turns out that truth has specific qualities, like acknowledging reality and narrating real actions. Truth has dimensions, too, such as immediate utility and reliability over time. There are brands delivering truthful advertising all over the world, but most of them don't talk about truth, per se. We can and should copy what they're doing...and expand on it.

Advertising can and should be a glorious combination of art and science used to inform and inspire people. We spend far too much money not to do so, and if we embraced the case for truth, the marketplace would be clamoring for more of it.

It's time to get our relationship back on track.

With love,


JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing decisions consultancy, and author of the just published Tell The Truth. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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