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Is the savvy consumer just a different kind of dupe? (And why it matters for copywriters)

By Andrew Boulton

March 8, 2016 | 5 min read

In many ways the life of a copywriter in the 1960s seems like a much simpler affair. It’s a time when, if we reflect on the tone of the work, women were dim and subservient, while men could be nudged into buying anything simply by twanging their post-war masculine anxiety and crudely strumming their burgeoning mania for status and stuff.

Compare it to the wrangles we undertake with the modern consumer and we could fairly assume that, in the 60s, you could take a piece of old string, label it the ‘Invis-Kite!’ and spend the rest of the day deciding where to put your award.

Nowadays, our audience is fearsome in their curiosity and their demands. Or so we’re told. A lot.

But what if, instead of operating in the age of the engaged, critical consumer, we’re actually dealing with a different kind of dupe?

In times gone by, we’re told that a consumer could be persuaded of just about anything. But perhaps that’s simply because they didn’t exist in a world that was trying to persuade them of everything.

Strip out a fistful of the bright and noisy modern digital platforms and already the advertising world seems a simpler place. It may be reductive to simply say that trust in advertising has an inverse relationship to its ubiquity, but like all wild generalisations there seems a whiff of logic about it.

And it’s that question of trust that could serve to whip the rug out from under the myth of the savvy consumer – before deftly persuading them to buy back the rug.

A Nielsen report from last September confirmed, as we all assume, that consumer trust in traditional advertising is plummeting. It also points to a stark ‘credibility gap’ between advertising and the endorsement of a trusted friend – a gap that appears to be growing wider and deeper.

There are a few broad conclusions we can make from this. One is that brands, dazzled by statistics about our mobile phone habits, are greedily plastering their messages with little real understanding for what a consumer may or may not engage with. The second is that, rather than growing more discerning, the modern consumer has simply transferred their credulity to another provider.

As well as the much-trusted endorsement from friends, another sector of influence that is growing in prevalence and impact is that of native advertising – effectively sponsored content dressed to look like it belongs on a particular site.

Another report by Reuters in 2015 shows a far warmer response to this kind of cuckoo advertising than the more established digital mediums. It also goes on to suggest that there may be substantial numbers of consumers absorbing this kind of messaging with no real awareness that they are being sold to.

In fact, 33% of UK respondents in the Reuters report suggest that they felt deceived or disappointed on learning that the article they consumed (and in many cases no doubt found entertaining and useful) was actually an example of native advertising.

And it’s into this wildly contradictory environment that many copywriters are dipping their nibs. If we believe what we are being told, our modern consumer is at once engaged and persuaded by native advertising – but only on the strict basis that they never find out it was actually advertising. Quite simply, our job now seems to be whispering into our customer’s ear and then leaping out of the window the very second we are rumbled.

Forgive the scepticism, but perhaps the portrait of the modern consumer as wielding a scalpel through our outdated mendacity is, in parts at least, a little fanciful. On a basic level the opportunities to persuade are no less plentiful and no more intricate than they ever have been – compelling copy, in the right place at the right moment, will still have the desired effect.

But, unlike perhaps the advertising world in the 60s, our modern copy demands a respect for our consumer – in terms of their intelligence, their capacity for distraction and their refusal to hear just one side of the story.

But would we change it all for blithely selling cheery servitude to women and cigarettes to misogynists? Would we indeed.

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