Marketing's Split Personality Is Looking Like Insanity

Are We Pitching to Consumers' Emotions, or to Their Minds?

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Most marketing folks I know have long been of two minds on the role of advertising, seeing it as a tool to connect with consumers emotionally, but also rationally. Most advertising has tried to do both, with varying degrees of success, and often at the expense of one or the other outcome. This uneasy duality has gotten more extreme lately.

In fact, it's beginning to look like a clinical affliction: Never have advertisers won more creative awards, entertained more Super Bowl viewers, or seen their content repurposed across more channels. Yet consumers have never trusted companies less, and their loyalty to brands has never been lower. Now, as if in response to this chronic condition, employers and clients increasingly rely on the invisible magic of data and tech solutions to try to connect consumers to sales transactions.

As advertising's disorder gets worse, it will become even less relevant to the business results for which it's intended. No consumer wakes up in the morning hating advertising or, conversely, looking for storytelling, brand engagement or any experiences that included the word "content" in a creative brief. They also don't want to be manipulated, but advertisers' bifurcated mentality presumes the exact opposite, thinking that consumers want their media entertaining, and for it are willing to trade data that will be used to push them toward purchases, sometimes even before they consciously think of them.

Perhaps that's why a British MP recently told an advertising association meeting that branding was a "curse" and that "excesses in marketing" might warrant tighter regulations. Or why James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker that consumers no longer rely on commercial messaging to make decisions (in a recent article entitled "Twilight of the Brands").

Advertising is hated for the material desires it engendered in the past. It is suspected of contributing to a host of present-day ills, and is all but abandoned as a future tool for making decisions.

Perhaps it's why the promise of data -- knowing enough about customers so they can be directed to all but automatically buy things -- was celebrated as the underlying rationale for last year's Publicis-Omnicom merger. Or why budgets for digital-marketing and technology solutions overall are forecasted to rise in the double digits this year and next.

George Orwell defined "doublethink" as a condition in which two beliefs are accepted, even as they contradict themselves. I'd suggest that the advertising industry suffers this cognitive dissonance, and this leaves the role of paid commercial speech in somewhat of a mental limbo.

To me, the rational, common ground is to strive for consumer understanding, not emotional fealty or robotic obedience. If ads credibly informed better decisions, people would think better of advertising, and advertisers would have to rely less on systemic ways to manipulate those decisions. Advertising could give less entertainment and make fewer promises, and instead creatively deliver narrative authenticity and real information, while using data insights not to program consumers' behavior, but to better engage their hearts and emotional selves.

Shouldn't achieving understanding be the new, unified purpose of creative and behaviorally-based commercial speech? As a marketing leader, this is a fundamental question you should consider, since how you answer it could have far greater impact on your brand's success than any new social-media tool or math on divvying up your budget that might be on your desktop right now.

Advertising could stand for something good, something reliable and true. The way things are now, at least it needs to stand for something. Trying to be two things at the same time, or serve two purposes, is just crazy.

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