Spencer Matthews, Joey Essex, the Kardashians. Each of them famous for being famous. Vacuous celebrities, with no discernible talent, skill or offering. All clinging on to their fame with increasingly desperate attempts to stay relevant.
But without substance, fame is transient. It’s subject to its audience’s waning attention and hunger for something new. Over time it’s put up to increasing levels of scrutiny, where fame itself is no longer enough to gain further fame.
And so it is with fame advertising. The last vestige of brands with nothing better to say.
I’m not going to lie, I’ve been a huge fan of the creativity that has been mustered by those low-interest category brands. Philip Schofield stroking kittens, camp Skeletor dance routines and, unless I was hallucinating, I’m pretty sure I saw Top Cat getting a mortgage on his bin.
This is a particularly skilful application of creativity to provide brand distinction when then the product has none. And it works.
Creativity drives fame, which in turn drives long-term business performance, that much is proven. But there is only so far the jazz hands of creativity can distract people from the empty truth behind the business.
This seems to be reaching crisis point in the comparison site category. In lieu of anything new to say, Compare The Market now seems to be predominantly in the business of selling soft toys and cinema tickets, Gio Compario is pushing 2-for-1 meals at Café Rouge, and MoneySupermarket is doing all it can for Hasbro’s share price.
Just like celebrities who rush to Strictly Come Dancing to try and resurrect their waning fame, both MoneySupermarket and Compare The Market are making a song and a dance of their advertising. In fact, both their most recent spots involve either puppet soldiers dancing or soldiers dancing with puppets. You’d think with so little distinction in their product, they would at least try to be distinct in their advertising.
Don’t get me wrong, the fame model has been more than justified by the past decade of success this category has enjoyed. All of the big four have seen double digit growth. Share prices have doubled. Media owners and agencies have been lapping up astronomic fees. And the creative agency industry gets to revel in huge production budgets and spurious trips to Vegas.
All the while, consumers have been under the joyous illusion of saving time and money. That’s enough to make everyone feel epic.
But this all feels lavishly inefficient. There is a whole industry of middle-men taking their cut as they wilfully fuel a never-ending acquisition game amongst an audience who are encouraged to constantly switch.
As Claer Barrett, editor of FT Money, points out, “ultimately, the fortunes that brands and price comparison websites spend on marketing campaigns and commission payments will be passed to the consumer in the form of higher prices.”
This has all the hallmarks of a financial bubble ripe for bursting. There is only so long that the industry can keep making money before the person they are making money from cottons on.
Remarkably, the recent Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) report indicated that consumers still mostly believe that comparison sites are unbiased and run for their benefit. But there are indications that they are growing suspicious. Now only 11% of consumers believe that the sites compare the whole market, and more people as a result are comparing the comparisons with 64% using more than one site.
The backlash is already starting to happen. Compare The Market is being probed by the CMA over so-called most-favoured nation clauses, under which insurers guarantee a particular site the best deals.
The consumer is wising up to the fact that maybe these comparison sites aren’t acting in their best interests. And they don’t care how much of their 80s nostalgia you appropriate to convince them otherwise.
In anticipation of this, MoneySupermarket has already been reinvesting some of the millions it’s been churning into media into actually making its website better. Fame advertising alone has done all it can do. Now it is up to the businesses to become worthy of fame again. To become famous for putting the customer’s interests front and centre. That is before the new wave of customer-centric comparison tools like Brolly, Habito and The Big Deal, swoop in and do it for them.
Either that, or I hear Joey Essex is up for advertising work.
Nick Emmel is Mr. President’s co-founder and chief strategy officer