Please, Do Believability Check

Let's face it, spurious claims are a big part of advertising and have been for a while. While there's a sucker born every minute, I can't help but think that the buying public is so inundated with questionable advertising that we're just adding to the cynicism out there. It's almost impossible to build a brand if the consumer can't trust that brand.

There's plenty of cause for cynicism. Take a look at the spam you have in your inbox - there's ads in there that make all sorts of questionable claims, from "guarantees" for products that make your naughty parts bigger to those that make your thighs and butt smaller. Four bedroom houses for under $100, earn $5,000 a week working at home, meet that elusive perfect mate - these are all claims that make most of us say, "Yeah, sure" right before we hit the delete key.

Problem is, this cynicism rubs off on the rest of the medium. (And we wonder why the average consumer is so... cynical. I can't imagine why.)

Cynicism is one of the reasons why we need to check all of our communications, especially online communications, for believability. When we make claims that are questionable, or otherwise communicate something to the consumer that is perceived as something less than true, the consumer tends to dismiss anything else that comes out of our mouths. In such a situation, how can we expect to build a trustworthy brand?

Here's a real-life example.

I had been keeping close tabs on MoveOn's political advertising contest to produce ads that challenge President Bush's policies. I even got a little ticked off when CBS turned down the notion of running the winning ad during the Super Bowl. But when I read the copy on the above-referenced page, it struck me as misleading and made me completely suspicious of MoveOn's arguments.

It was this sentence that caused me to feel this way: "CBS claims that this ad and an ad from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals are too controversial to air."

Anyone who was watching the CBS-MoveOn controversy carefully knows that the official reason CBS gave for refusing to run MoveOn's ad was that they had a policy against running issue ads on their network, not because the ad was "too controversial."

I don't want to get into a discussion about whether or not CBS's decision was just or unjust. I'd like to focus on how MoveOn handled it. By putting up copy that effectively put words into CBS's mouth, MoveOn created its own trust issues. In reading that copy, the first thing that popped into my head was not, "Gee, this CBS decision seems lame," but "Hey! That's not what CBS said about the ad! What gives?" In a communications effort where truth and believability are critical, MoveOn should have known better.

One of the things that makes the online medium great is its ability to test copy and ad imagery on a number of different attributes. MoveOn could have easily tested the copy in a quick online focus group of politically active online users. Heck, it could have tested it against a handful of volunteers from its own member database. Such a review of the copy probably would have picked up on this believability issue.

We should learn from MoveOn's mistake. And we should take advantage of what the online medium has to offer us. Test your ads out. Make sure that they're not detrimental to consumer trust in the brand. And make sure that consumers aren't thinking that your claims are on par with those in a penis enlargement spam.

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