Has advertising lost its influence? Shaping culture, conscience and commerce

Is advertising still capable of shaping culture, or has it become mere background wallpaper? Suzy Bashford reflects on the true impact of modern advertising, asking what it takes to provoke more than just an instinctive reaction and actually influence society.

I remember seeing Protein World’s ‘Are you beach body ready?’ for the first time. Waiting for the bus, one hand busy scrolling emails on my phone, the other hurriedly stuffing chocolate into my mouth, I stopped, gazed down from the model’s indisputably beach-body-ready tummy on the billboard to my slightly protruding one, and wistfully dropped the half-eaten chocolate bar in the bin. Later I found myself wondering (much to my own annoyance) what a protein shake even was, and whether the chocolate flavour would taste like the bar I’d just chucked.

If that’s not influence, then what is? The fact is, despite the hundreds of commercial messages I’d zoned out that day, that one permeated my consciousness and prompted action. And I know I’m not the only intelligent, grown woman to have reacted to that ad and others like it. So while there are plenty of people proclaiming the end of advertising and denouncing its ability to shape culture or influence us, they are wrong – it can and, sometimes, does. What’s changed is the frequency at which it is able to do these things because of the cluttered, fragmented media market we now live in and an increasingly marketing-savvy consumer.

This is borne out by hard stats. “There is no evidence from our link pre-testing that video advertising, for example, is getting less engaging. Pre-test results today are very similar to responses we got when we first started testing in 1989,” says Nigel Hollis, executive vice-president and chief global analyst at Millward Brown.

Consequently, he refuses to buy into arguments by stalwarts of the industry hankering after halcyon days that ads were much more powerful in the 80s. There are still examples that “blow the socks off” says Hollis, pointing to Dos Equis ‘Most interesting man’ campaign in North America and Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ in the UK. “Are they part of the culture? Damn right they are.”

The worrying trend, in his opinion, affecting advertising’s influence is that clutter is increasingly making consumers less efficient at retaining information about brands. This is bad news because the build-up of memories in a mind is proven to have a positive effect on sales. “Advertising awareness, where the respondent thinks they’ve seen that brand advertising in some media channel in the recent past, is the first step towards a sale; the ad creates a memory structure. On average, we are seeing that happen less.”

Dig a little deeper however and the data also reveals that ads could stick in our memories much more effectively if marketers better matched the message to the medium. “Marketers are not being smart enough about adapting their creative,” says Hollis. “Campaigns that are customised to a channel, rather than using the same creative in every channel, tend to perform better.”

This topic hits a raw nerve with Dave Trott, who believes adland’s obsession with hitting as many media channels as possible, rather than focusing on quality of creative, is at the heart of advertising’s drop in influence: “[Sir Martin] Sorrell says the medium is much more important than the message. He is basically saying ‘we just want more advertising, never mind the quality’. You can’t keep going like that. Back in the golden period of advertising, it wasn’t about money. It was about being great. What used to be called creative is now called content, and is just there to fill a space, so it becomes background wallpaper.”

Trott blames the dearth of inspiring creativity on a lack of industry diversity and an abundance of vocationally trained graduates, leading to formulaic, out-of touch thinking. The chink of light in the gloomy landscape that Trott paints is his utter belief that individuals, even just one working on their own, thinking differently, has the power to “change the industry”. Advertising, he says, is on the cusp of change and future game-changing, power-to-influence ads will come from campaigns that don’t focus on jumping from channel to channel but from “human mind to human mind”.

The pertinent question for marketers in 2016 is, which part of the human mind should they try to appeal to? Until now the vast majority of marketing has targeted the primitive, reptilian part of our brains, also known as our ‘lower self’. Undoubtedly this can be a highly effective, quick-win strategy, exemplified by my instinctive, emotional reaction to the Protein World ad.

Philosopher Alain de Botton explains why this is still such an effective strategy: “Despite the sophistication and civilisation of the human race, we remain very easily seduced by stories that we don’t necessarily, in the more evolved part of our brain, believe. We don’t really believe that sunshine holiday is going to deliver us eternal happiness, but we still book it. We know that person posting on Instagram is kind of lying, but we still feel envious of them, and inadequate in our own selves.”

It’s our “less evolved” brain, he explains, that is so receptive to suggestible, basic imagery that taps into our fears and desires, from the sex-sells stuff to models with to-starve-for bodies. The moral, philosophical question increasingly creeping into modern marketing is whether marketers should try harder to engage our “higher, wiser” selves; a more challenging goal but one that arguably leads to more influence and brand loyalty, not to mention a better society.

Indeed, momentum is growing around campaigns that encourage us to be the best ‘higher’ versions of ourselves – hugely successful ideas like Always’ #LikeAGirl and Ariel’s #SharetheLoad are perfect examples of how this approach can gain cultural traction in a more powerful way than advertising ever managed to.

Cultural commentators like De Botton hope that this is the future of advertising, believing it aligns culture, conscience and commerce: “Human beings are a mixture of the mean and the more heroic. We’ve all got those possibilities in us. If brands woke up to that and tried to trade on the good sides of people, they’d find there is a huge part of human beings who want to give. But there’s this assumption that you can’t make money from the good sides of people. You can.”

It takes a brave marketer to challenge a superior and push to take the ‘higher’ ground, rather than the well-trodden path of least resistance. As Charlie Rudd, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather London (the agency behind Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’), says: “To do work that stands out is, by definition, more difficult than producing work similar to that which has gone before. But the ad industry plays a really important part in society and the economy. We need to live up to that responsibility, rather than become more subversive. When you get it right, you get as much kudos as you ever could have.”

Nevertheless, the industry still has a few characters willing to poke their head above the parapet and take De Botton’s “more heroic” route. Take Jonathan Mildenhall, Airbnb’s chief marketing officer, who at Coke controversially commissioned ads including same-sex parents and in his current post uses marketing to encourage inclusivity, especially around the transgender community.

He argues that good advertising is more important to good business and good culture than it’s ever been, and that “human beings are increasingly seeking out brave brands who put cultural purpose at the core of what they do”.

“Advertising today can create greater cultural influence than ever before,” he says, “especially if we put human values above all else.

“Promoting human values can inspire audiences all over the world and, in doing so, help change the world for the better.”

In the wise words of Spiderman’s uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. The responsibility of marketers, asserts De Botton, is to trust that human beings, for all their flaws, can be “noble, curious and out for the greater good”.

“If you trust them to be these things, you could even make some money off them too.”

This piece was first published in The Drum's 20 April issue, guest-edited by BMB founder Trevor Beattie.

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