Advertising Meets Its Slippery Slope

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider:

<We’ve now reached the crux of the matter when it comes to the ad biz.

For a couple of centuries now, we’ve been refining the process of advertising. The goal has always been to get people to buy stuff. But right now, there's a perfect storm of forces converging that requires industry insiders to do some deep navel-gazing.

Formerly, to get people to buy, all we had to do was inform. Pent-up consumer demand created by expanding markets and new product introductions would take care of the rest. We just had to connect the better mousetraps with the world, which would then duly beat the path to the respective door.  Advertising equaled awareness.

But sometime in the waning days of the consumer orgy that followed World War II, we changed our mandate. Not content with simply informing, we decided to become influencers. We slipped under the surface of the brain, moving from providing information for rational consideration to priming subconscious needs. We started messing with the wiring of our market’s emotional motivations.  We became persuaders.

Persuasion is like a mental iceberg: 90% of the bulk lies below the surface. Rationalization is typically the hastily added layer of ad hoc logic that happens after the decision is already made.  This is true to varying degrees for almost any consumer category you can think of, including, unfortunately, our political choices.

This is why, a few columns ago, I said Facebook’s current model is unsustainable. It is based on advertising, and I think advertising may have become unsustainable. The truth is, advertisers have gotten so good at persuading us to do things that we are beginning to revolt. It’s just getting too creepy.

To understand how we got here, let’s break down persuasion. It requires the persuader to shift the beliefs of the persuadee. The bigger the shift required, the tougher the job of persuasion. 

We tend to build irrational (aka emotional) bulwarks around our beliefs to preserve them. For this reason, it’s tremendously beneficial to persuaders to understand the belief structure of their target. If they can do this, they can focus on those whose belief structure is most conducive to the shift required.

When it comes to advertisers, the needle on our creative powers of persuasion hasn’t really moved that much in the last half century. There were very persuasive ads created in the 1960s, and there are still great ads being created. The disruption that has moved our industry to the brink of the slippery slope has all happened on the targeting end.

The world we used to live in was a bunch of walled and mostly unconnected physical gardens. Within each, our relevant beliefs  would remain essentially private. Our beliefs lived inside us, typically unspoken and unmonitored.

You could probably predict with reasonable accuracy the religious beliefs of the members of a local church. But that wouldn’t help you if you were wondering whether the congregation leaned toward Ford or Chevy. 

That all changed when we created digital mirrors of ourselves through Facebook, Twitter, Google and all the other usual suspects. John Battelle, author of "The Search,"  once called Google the database of intentions. It is certainly that. But our intent also provides an insight into our beliefs.

And when it comes to Facebook, we literally map out our entire previously private belief structure for the world to see. That's why Big Data is so potentially invasive. We are opening ourselves up to subconscious manipulation of our beliefs by anyone with the right budget.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe we're immune to the potential abuse that comes with that manipulation. As I said, 90% of our beliefs are submerged in our subconscious.

We are just beginning to realize how effective the new tools of persuasion are. And as we do so, we are beginning to feel that this form of persuasion is  very unfair. No one likes being manipulated, even if they have willingly laid the groundwork for that manipulation.

Our sense of retroactive justice kicks in. We post rationalizations and point fingers. We blame Facebook, or the government, or some hackers in Russia.

But these are all just participants in a new ecosystem that we have helped build. The problem is not the players. The problem is the system.

It’s taken a long time, but advertising might just have gotten to the point where it works too well.

6 comments about "Advertising Meets Its Slippery Slope".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 8, 2018 at 10:43 a.m.

    Gord, I was there when advertisers, guided by agencies like BBDO, moved into the mindset arena in developing their TV commercials and you are right,  this introduced a new kind of selling. However at the same time, following WW2 there was an explosion of new product categories and competing brands so merely informing the viewer that you had a nice soap or cereal or car wasn't good enough. To stand out and make a sale you had to say something that was distinctive as well as relevant about your brand---appealing to that portion of the product user base that cared about fitness, low prices, fashion, status, dependability, ease of use, etc. --and many other variables, sometimes in combination.

    Fast forward to today and we now do things much faster, using much shorter messages---and now there are even more brand names for the consumer to consider, in many more product categories, while, at the same time we have many more ad avoidance mechanisms. Also, digital media can, in many cases, offer insights about the interests of selected consumers which can be of help to advertisers in terms of targeting their media buys,  but there are many other sources for the same kinds of information. Using whatever is helpful, advertisers and their agencies must still come up with the most effective brand positioning strategies as well as ad executions. Yes, a given consumer may buy certain products of visit certain websites but that takes you only part of the way.

    My final point is about what kinds of advertising we are referring to. Contrary to the total ad revenue figures being bandied about, digital media is not the dominant medium for branding advertising. As subscribers to our annuals may have seen in one of our recent "Alert" reports, TV dwarfs digital in ad spending, when all of the search, other direct response, classifieds, lead generation and related activies are deleted. When I look at the kinds of ads that populate traditional media, I wonder how much has really changed since the 1960s.

  2. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, May 8, 2018 at 11:20 a.m.

    Interesting column Gord, but your premise seems to rely too heavily on what consumers have posted to social media, and less so on how sophisticated big data has become at combining data sources such as grocery story check out and online searches and credit card purchase data, etc. that in the aggregate can paint a pretty accurate portrait of almost any individual. If past is indeed prologue, as a marketer I would want to know more about purchases and search history than say political leanings and what kind of stories they retweet.

  3. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, May 8, 2018 at 11:27 a.m.


    I agree with you from a purely transactional basis - this type of data is more actionable. I was looking at this from more of a branding/psychological basis. If there's one thing we've learning about marketing - it's that it's happening at all levels and on multiple fronts. For me, the selective segmentation of markets based on belief proclivity and then manipulating the information fed to that segment is a canary in a coalmine.

  4. Michael Mongelluzzo from Captivate, May 8, 2018 at 1:40 p.m.

    "The advertising industry's prime task is to ensure that uninformed consumers make irrational choices, thus undermining market theories that are based on just the opposite."
    Noam Chomsky

  5. Leonard Zachary from T___n__ replied, May 11, 2018 at 11:06 a.m.

    Digital ad spending reached $209 billion worldwide — 41 percent of the market — in 2017, while TV brought in $178 billion — 35 percent of the market — in 2017. That’s according to Magna, the research arm of media buying firm IPG Mediabrands.

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 11, 2018 at 12:57 p.m.

    Welcome back, Leonard, we missed you.

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