To attract today's consumer, more honest approach wins

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In the fall, I was lucky enough to attend a Nascar race, the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 in Richmond, Va. A fantastic cultural experience was marred by a typical hapless-Brit-abroad's mistake: dissing the available beers (the light versions of Miller, Coors and Budweiser).

Worse, my audience was a couple of 295-pound ZZ Top lookalikes, complete with thick, sunburned necks. They overlooked my praise for the barbecued turkey legs to focus aggressively on my use of the adjective "pissy" to describe their beloved brews.

My new buddies explained why they drank light beers. "'Cause it's healthier for you, man," said one, staring at me as if I was something he'd just stepped on. "That's why you can drink 20 of the suckers!" He then smashed an empty can into his forehead and told me exactly where I could stick my Stella Artois.

To me, advertising light beers on their low-calorie dietary attributes is as wrong as the despicable "healthy" KFC campaign. Even if the letter of the script is arguably truthful, the spirit of the ad is a cynical lie.

In my farewell column for Advertising Age, here's a triple plea. First, that the global ad industry stand up for itself in the face of the commoditization of what it does by ever-more-scared clients. Second, that the many talented people who work within it be allowed to express the creative instincts for which they have been hired, and be paid handsomely. The third is that the latter group then rewards the faith shown in it by the former by creating a more socially responsible body of work-advertising that is more honest, if you like.

This may seem strange since I frequently rail against the debilitating conservatism of American advertising. However, I am not advocating taking even fewer risks but the very opposite: Have the courage to be more honest about your product and its effects on society.

It's why I dislike KFC, while being in the minority here in the U.S. that applauds Club 18-30. It's why my three favorite straplines remain Stella Artois' "Reassuringly expensive" ( Lowe, London), "Ronseal: It does exactly what it says on the tin" (from the then HHCL & Partners, London) and "Drive a Porsche, get laid" (from Dudley Moore's gang of mental patients in the movie "Crazy People").

Globally, ever more sophisticated consumers are rejecting the crass artifice of inherently dishonest associations, such as a Celine Dion/Chrysler and the self-indulgent impenetrability of AT&T Wireless' "mLife". Surveys consistently suggest consumers no longer like advertising as much as they used to, when more clients valued agencies' instincts to create ads that touch hearts as well as minds.

After three years of columns about "creativity" and "international," it is sadly apparent that the above issues are of little concern to many marketers. For what it's worth, my parting prediction is that savvy global consumers from New York to New Delhi will increasingly use zappers or TiVo to turn away from ads that insult their intelligence or that, just as bad, don't register. The global advertising community has too much talent to allow this to happen if it is empowered to do its best. That is a big "if".

Thank you for reading.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity.

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