Commentary

You Can't Convince Consumers We Aren't Hucksters

David Berkowitz, the CMO of MRY, and one of the brighter bulbs in the interactive firmament, this week wrote (tongue not entirely in cheek) a byliner that outlined "How to Solve Every Crisis in the Ad Industry."

David noted that "The crises hitting the ad industry keep multiplying. Ad-blocking stories have topped the trades and mainstream press for weeks. Talent shortages abound, though the great work produced by top talent is rarely properly rewarded. Twenty years after the first banner ad debuted, we still can't agree on what an impression is. There are crises of confidence matched by crises of competence."

His "fixes" made a lot of sense, like "an ad must be fully viewable on the screen for it to count," and "call three seconds the minimum for what counts as a video view" — even if the more ethereal bromides like "Don't steal" and "Reward great work" seemed a stretch.

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But the kicker "Put trust first" was a head-scratcher when David wrote "All that we're missing is a consistent effort to earn the trust of our customers -- and each other."

It’s a head-scratcher because David actually addressed this trust issue earlier, when he called for the industry to "reject short-term opportunism for long-term gains," writing "Can you cram another ad on a page or between pages or every 12 seconds during a video? Sure. What will that do to the user experience? And even if today you can get away with it because you're the only game in town with a certain kind of content, you're making people hate us all more."

In the same publication, the IAB's Randy Rothenberg seemed to agree entirely, yet took a few paragraphs in his own byliner to blame ad blocking on “unethical technology companies seeking to divert ad spending into their own pockets."  But then he added, “Unfortunately, these rapacious businesses are also exploiting a real vulnerability: the erosion of stimulating consumer experiences online. For this, the marketing-media ecosystem bears real responsibility."

While I agree with Randy that ad-blocking companies in business to extort ad dollars from those willing to pay to get past the blockers need to be called out, he fails to address major industry players who are building ad blockers into their desktop — and now mobile — browsers. Are they not extorting ad dollars in their own way?

Consumers aren't stupid. They read about these developments, and although they may not understand the fine print, they figure that if The Big Boys are helping block ads, there MUST be something nefarious about ads — so it's OK for individuals to download their own ad blockers. After all, the action is not that far off from their cable companies allowing them to record shows, then fast-forward through TV commercials on replay.

Moreover, consumers "get" that a considerable amount of advertising is designed to get them to buy products and services they really don't want — regardless of that tired notion of right ad, right place, right time.

Our industry is perceived to be the handmaiden of the consumer economy that is driven only by spending.  Finally, since consumers pay a substantial monthly fee for broadband, they utterly reject the notion that "ads pay for content," so by ignoring ads, consumers are somehow "stealing."

Calls like David and Randy's "to earn the trust of our customers" are kind of like beauty pageant contestants saying that if they could, they would end world hunger and stop all wars. You need only watch the political circus under our national big top to see that years of built-up "trust" can be compromised by a single misplaced sentence.

Besides, we don't trust consumers anyway. They are not reasonable human beings. They are data points merged, purged, assembled and sold to the highest bidder — who will serve them an ad that about 90% of the time is not in their best interest.  If they “convert," they only descend down to another level of hell, because they then become known buyers, so will get MORE meaningless ads.

We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole in this business.  Even if we somehow manage to climb out, consumers will still call us hucksters. And honestly, who can blame them?

5 comments about "You Can't Convince Consumers We Aren't Hucksters".
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  1. David Berkowitz from MRY, September 24, 2015 at 4:02 p.m.

    George, thanks for using the post as a springboard. 

    A couple thoughts to specific points:

    -"Head scratcher" - fair feedback. Really, I could have written a much shorter piece with that single takeaway, so there is some redundancy. 

    -Beauty pageant analogy - I'd like to think Randy is in a very good position to create change. I can play my part as well, as can you and our fellow practioners. Much of it will be drops in a bucket, but so much of this 'media-marketing ecosystem' as mentioned by Randy has been shaped by conscious decisions, and if enough of us influence the next wave of decisions, perhaps there is something we can do.

    -Behaviors do change, even if perceptions change more slowly. With greater transparency today, and more channels to have open and public discussions about the challenges in our field and the ways to fix them, we can at least seek to bring together more people who want to put trust first rather than opportunism. I agree with the very deep hole and won't overstate the value of words rather than actions, but at times words do inspire actions. 

  2. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, September 24, 2015 at 4:20 p.m.

    David, you (and Randy) and I are all on the same page. Where we differ is that I think that no matter what we do as an industry we will never gain the trust - or respect - of consumers. That doesn't mean we should not try to right the wrongs we have done. Just don't expect a round of applause from the (target) audience.

  3. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct, September 24, 2015 at 5:11 p.m.

    But let's be honest... We are in the business of getting consumers to spend money with our companies/clients. So a lot of handwringing here suggests we are trying to keep consumers from what they already understand - that the goal of all this work is an economic transaction.

    my experience is that if we accept that and embrace it (the only role no company can exist without is salesman, we create jobs, we build economic strength ... If we are responsible with our role) consumers respond BETTER than if we keep up the bait and switch approaches that are so popular today... ("No, really, it's just an article you'll read for your health - that's why we paid so much to show it to you and why all the value it could have had is lost because we are pitching our product - just trust us.")

    i think it is shameful how arrogant the digital ad biz was in the beginning about a noble purpose... Honestly, it's just another medium seeking to help economic transactions happen.

    when we admit what we do, I find consumers respond better. They know the deal. So treat them honestly and with direct humility. And guess what? They'll engage in the economic transaction and respect your company better.

  4. David Berkowitz from MRY, September 24, 2015 at 5:29 p.m.

    It is transactional. Doug, totally with you there. I've pushed back against colleagues in the past who want to pretend we're trying to change the world. We're not.

    But we also can show a bit of respect for our target audience too. The "we create jobs, we build economic strength" argument can be used to mask really heinous activities, like selling cigarettes to kids with cartoon mascots, or selling arms worldwide to questionable parties. Most of us are not in that business. And that argument can't hold water for long. 

    Where we've really screwed things up is that people hate the experience we created so much that they want to steal from the media companies they actually like, potentially destroying those very sources of info and entertainment. 

  5. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct, September 24, 2015 at 6:52 p.m.

    Agreed, David, that we need to act with moral guidance - because the market doesn't impose any kind of morality. So when I suggest creating jobs and economic strength my thought is that good advertising does that - enabling companies to grow and be strong. And, you are right, without a moral compass that same persuasive power can be used for harm. But that really makes advertising...well...like about everything else in the world. :-)

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