Advertising that overpromises, ambushes diminishes all ads

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You can't have it both ways. Two stories in last week's issue had consumers and marketers going in opposite directions. Influential consumers seem to want to be wooed in traditional media, while marketers are gearing up to hit them and everybody else when and where they're not expecting ad messages.

That's a dangerous path to take.

Most consumers expect and tolerate ads on TV and in magazines and newspapers, but I contend that putting ads on virtually every blade of grass will build resentment for advertising everywhere-even in traditional media.

Jonathan Field, a consultant to ad agencies, reacted to my last column when I said we should fix what we've got before charging off into uncharted territory. "The problem with advertising is not marketing but second-rate creativity," Mr. Field e-mailed me. "I think the problem of marketing pollution will be increased, not decreased, by the move to branding 24/7. George Orwell's `1984' would look pacific (or perhaps just visionary of our era) in a universe where your most intimate relationships are overshadowed by brand buzz, every movie becomes a drama around product placement, and every breath we breathe becomes monetized. Really scary. Great advertising can bring real delight, striking chords because of honesty or insight and surprise."

One of the problems is that advertising management at the client level is most often responsible for stuff like media expenditures, agency compensation and production costs rather than for the quality of advertising itself. One reader commented that this division of labor "explains why most clients are afraid to take chances in advertising. Maybe marketers are moving away from traditional advertising because it's more likely to get them fired than a product placement."

As I noted in my last column, Chicago agency man Mark Silviera, in his book "Ordinary Advertising. And How to Avoid It Like the Plague," suggests that marketers should establish the position of Chief Advertising Officer to champion great advertising.

The auto industry is badly in need of such a person. Have you seen the TV commercials for Buick's new LaCrosse? It's as if the ads were written for an entirely different car, one that is sleek and cool and hip. One spot shows elegantly clad women caressing themselves while adoring (and adorning) the LaCrosse, and another opens with candles flickering in silent tribute to this apparently magnificent machine. The tagline: "The car you've been dreaming of is the car we've dreamed up."

What are they talking about? It looks like some frumpy old Buick to me-you know, the one Tiger Woods drives. I read in Automotive News that General Motors had a really neat-looking car ready to go as the new LaCrosse, but they dumbed it down because they didn't want it to be too radical for Buick buyers.

So Buick's marketing people wanted the ads to reflect the sophistication of the automobile they almost, but didn't quite, have the courage to build. The CAO could have demanded that LaCrosse ads refrain from making an absolutely absurd statement about the car so as not to raise expectations beyond reality.

How many potential LaCrosse buyers were lured to showrooms with the idea that the car must be something really special only to have their hopes dashed when they saw the car in the cold light of day? Sometimes, I would venture to say, the CAO's job would be to just make the advertising realistic, never mind great.

There is rampant miscommunication bolloxing up the ad business these days. Consumers want great advertising that delivers on its promise and that is delivered where they expect ads to be. Marketers are intent on giving them something else.

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