Now here's a radical theory: ads last bastion of honesty

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I've got a theory I'd like to try out on you: Advertising is the last bastion of honesty in a world where just about every institution-corporations, government, the church-is suddenly suspect. As a corollary, I wouldn't be surprised if many respected brand names are trusted more than the companies that make them.

Yet most CEOs spend most of their time worrying about quarterly earnings (which drives the stock price, which drives the CEOs' stock options), and less and less time worrying about their company's marketing efforts. The irony is that advertising and marketing can give a company credibility and trust with consumers it never will get through appeals to the investment community.

CEOs need to decide whom they are in business to please: the consumers who buy their products or the investors who buy their stock? We all know who's winning that contest.

But brands and advertising are things people can see, touch and feel, and they know if a company's ads and brands are reliable and can be counted on. As is often said, the fastest way to kill a bad product is to advertise it-because consumers will try it and find out firsthand how bad it really is.

Companies can't get away with offensive and deceptive advertising for long because it's out there for everyone to see (unlike some of the shady off-book partnerships some companies have created that even their boards of directors didn't know about). If advertising makes product claims that can't be substantiated, competitors will jump all over the offending ads and bring them to the Federal Trade Commission or the ad industry's own self-regulatory body, the National Advertising Review Council. Or consumer groups will complain to the media. So companies can get away with very little when it comes to their marketing efforts. And, let's face it, they can get away with cooking the books for years if they're so inclined.

The medium may be the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, but these days the real question is whether it delivers a trustworthy message. Financial-services firms already tout their objectivity to try to establish that their products and services are on the up and up. General advertisers are sure to follow. Credibility is becoming the word of the day.

I don't remember companies getting into all this trouble when the head guy wasn't so caught up in the acquisition game. Not so terribly long ago, the CEO was very involved in the process of protecting and growing his company's precious brand names, and he or she worked closely with the company's ad agency to advance the process. When CEOs weren't showered with stock options as the main component of compensation, they could be more realistic about priorities and not be swept away by the notion that pushing the company's stock ever upward was their main job.

We have to get back to the idea that the CEO in the long run must above all be intimately involved in building great brands. Chasing acquisitions is a house of cards, as the last several years have shown. CEOs must be rewarded for managing for the long term, and there's nothing more long term than the care and feeding of any company's most valuable assets: the products and services that painstakingly have earned the trust of consumers the world over.

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