Advertising Is Business, Not Some Holy Mission

Your Job Is to Help Move the Merchandise, Not Campaign for Sainthood

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Why are advertising people so intent on recasting their jobs as noble missions unattached to the grubby business of selling something to somebody?

The quest to unite the highest aspirations of both the practitioner and the consumer has taken on an almost virginal, transaction-free aura. Marketing isn't just about selling products, declared Marc Pritchard, P&G's top marketer, at the ANA conference last fall. "Marketing is serving."

Ad people like to think they're above the battle, attuned to a higher calling. They're much too clever and strategic to get down in the trenches for hand-to-hand combat to move the merchandise. So they talk about the empowered consumer, the consumer as boss, to give the impression that the selling process is beyond their control. Some advertisers and their agency brethren might confide in each other about how they hawk products that they'd never buy on TV shows that they'd never watch, but they try mightily to stay far away from the fray.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that advertising professionals are campaigning for sainthood. They seem consumed by messianic fire, determined to convert the heathens to their higher calling. Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi extols the emotional triggers in products to unlock unmitigated love. "I knew that if people loved something rather than merely liked it, they would be loyal beyond reason, beyond price, beyond recession. Lovemarks? The future beyond brands infused with mystery, sensuality and intimacy," he wrote in Ad Age last year.

Beyond brands and beyond reason. Now there's a client brief that gives the agency lots of running room.

The Lovemark concept still considers the buyers of its products as consumers, even though they are, ideally, "beyond reason." Now along comes "HumanKind," which proclaims that "we are no longer "consumers' first, but humans first."

Brands are out, people are in. "We can no longer build brands, we can only move people," write Tom Bernardin and Mark Tutssel of Leo Burnett in "HumanKind," their new book. "We can no longer position brands, we can only create content that encourages authentic conversations between people and brands based on a brand's human purpose."

So don't get in the way, Messrs. Bernardin and Tutssel advise. "We can no longer rely on ads that speak to people, we must provide people with opportunities to act. As marketers, we can no longer claim that it is up to us to be the motor that drives the brands, we can only empower people and let them take the steering wheel themselves."

But beware emotion without human purpose, the authors warn, in an oblique smackdown of Lovemarks. "Work that speaks only to our emotions pulls the heartstrings of the lowest common emotional denominator. It's sentimental and transient. Creative output like this may move people emotionally but it won't move them to charge their behavior."

Yeah, but it might get marketers to change agencies.

All of this talk about loving a product beyond reason and finding its human purpose sounds a mite on the pretentious side to me. After all, ads have always sought to be aspirational and advertisers have always sought to discover the secret of advertising. Albert Lasker was told -- and he believed -- it was "salesmanship in print."

It never works to try to shoehorn a concept or philosophy where it doesn't belong. As former Ad Age columnist and now consultant Bob Garfield observed, Saatchi & Saatchi's commercial for JCPenney, relying on the Lovemarks strategy, fell flat. "Kevin Roberts' Lovemarks sounds suspiciously like the branding of generic ad emotion," Garfield wrote in 2007. "The lovely spot 'Calendar' casts a magical spell that makes you all gooey about the mall -- a spell broken only by actually entering a JCPenney." Now, four years later, the Penney ads don't even try for emotion -- a babe in a bikini was one spot I saw recently.

It's equally silly to crown all of Burnett's brands with a "human purpose." For James Ready beer in Canada, the agency identified the brand's human purpose: To help you enjoy life for less. How noble, how uplifting.

Back in 1987 Keith Reinhard wrote that he didn't believe "in formulas for making advertising. Nor do I believe that guidelines apply universally, but the essence of our agency's best work will combine simplicity, surprise and a smile."

Ah, the old three S's -- a surefire formula for success even in these troubled times.

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