People Don't 'Like' Ads

There are many mantras that we allow ourselves to chant and believe as we make our way through life -- some of them useful, some of them less so and some of them downright delusional. Similarly, in different walks of life, certain conventions must be adhered to so that everything runs smoothly.

One such example might be the theatre where we, the audience, accept the artifice of the whole affair, that the people onstage really don't know we are there and they are doing whatever they are doing spontaneously and for the first time. Whether or not this works depends in part on the ability of the actors and the quality of the staging, but it also fundamentally depends on what is referred to as the "willing suspension of disbelief." We are happy to play along with the act and play our part in the theatrical conceit, thereby enjoying the performance.

It strikes me that the media and advertising business -- like any others -- has more than a few mantras of their own that work along similar lines (after all, both are based on performances of different kinds). However, there is one mantra in particular that in my mind requires the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of those that utter it, or at the very least a lack of real consideration of what it means.



The mantra in question is "People like advertising."

I guess it kind of makes sense that people who make advertising for a living are going to want to believe that people actually like their handiwork, but it remains a constant source of amazement to me that this statement is continually trotted out by otherwise intelligent people.

Anyone who has ever done any amount of consumer research around advertising will know that it is way more complicated that that. People don't like advertising. That said, most don't dislike it either. For the most part, advertising is a part of the media landscape and, with regard to TV, simply part of the package. Naturally there are some aspects of TV advertising that annoy and some that please, but it is way too simplistic and convenient to say "people like advertising."

In essence, people like some advertising and are at best ambivalent and at worst annoyed by the rest. To say that "people like advertising" is about as meaningful (and accurate) as saying "people like people."

Ask most consumers if they would prefer TV without ads and they will say yes. The fact that most will switch their opinion if you tell they'll have to pay more isn't a testament to the heartfelt regard they have for the product of the advertising community; it merely tells us that ads are the lesser of two evils when stacked up against the prospect of parting with cold, hard cash.

You can pretty much predict the annoyances that people will cite when discussing TV advertising -- the number of ads in an hour-long program, seeing the same spot over and over, annoying creative (and I don't just mean the Head-On ads), and the seemingly endless torrent of ads that have no relevance to the viewer and that intrude upon the program.

Having said all this, show people an ad that makes them laugh, tells them something they didn't know, or offers them something of relevance, and the response is entirely different. People like advertising of this nature.

The challenge with such "likable" advertising of course is that -- as Shakespeare put it -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are endless variables that determine whether or not an ad strikes a chord with a viewer -- from sense of humor to relevance and timeliness -- and pretty much none of them can be governed by the advertiser.

The promise of addressable advertising does at least hold out the prospect of starting to come to terms with some of these variables on a household level. No more cat food commercials for dog households. It remains to be seen how quickly this technique will become widespread and how effectively it will be applied. Hopefully learnings will be shared to accelerate the effective adoption of the best approaches, so that viewers see more advertising they respond well to and advertisers benefit accordingly.

I've been involved in a number of projects in the past where the prospect of addressable advertising was being explored. Very often it seemed to be an expectation of the digital system. For consumers, the rationale was that the system owner knew where they lived (geographic targeting), knew their program and viewing preferences (set-top box data), could request additional info -- and as long as they were confident the system owner would suffer consequences from a regulatory body if it abused the confidentiality of that data, then they were good to go. It would mean less irrelevant advertising, assuming they could input the right info (the expectation was that they could do this onscreen). The one caveat that many people came to was the definition of "relevant" advertising. Would it be relevant according to the consumer's criteria -- or those of the advertisers? Naturally most consumers claim they would prefer the former, but this caveat is certainly not insurmountable.

So for now, while many might want to believe that people like TV advertising, I would suggest that -- in advance of addressable advertising being widely available -- we use a different starting point; one that more accurately reflects the mindset of the average viewer toward the vast majority of ads: "People couldn't care less about the ad or the brand -- it's not why they're watching, and they'd rather it wasn't there."

Admittedly it's a tougher starting point (and we all like to believe that our intended audience appreciates our hard work), but it seems to me that if more advertising recognized this at the concept stage, there would be more "likable" advertising on our screens.

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