People don’t care about advertising, but that’s only half the story

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A couple of recent articles caught my eye: one saying that the general public care a toss about advertising and then a rebuttal. Both these got me thinking if the advertising profession worries far too much about its output and impact on society. Undoubtedly, advertising plays a critical role in commerce – brands are built and employment generated with advertising as an important catalyst. Advertising also sustains the media business subsiding the cost of periodicals and providing a revenue stream for media brands. But the unpleasant fact is that a majority of advertising is white noise: it just goes unnoticed. When you think of all the people-hours, effort, heartburn, ‘strategy sessions’ and re-works that must have gone into them it does seem like a wasted effort.

Advertising is perhaps one of the few professions where everyday work and output thereof is taken far too seriously by the agency professionals. I am not suggesting that they should be apathetic towards work – no, after all the industry calls for passion as a pre-requisite. But let’s admit it, the work is largely about stuff that makes no difference to the world. A hapless Account Executive and the creative team may have worked all night to produce a leaflet or a social media campaign about a price-off campaign for a floor cleaner brand or some such. Obviously it is important to the brand team and I am not trivialising the effort but the angst that typically accompanies such is disproportionate. 

It is true that most common people would not have even noticed that full-page ad for a real estate brand that many broke a sweat on. They may not recall the catchy jingle or clever tagline that an agency creative worked on and got into a fight with the brand team.  However, industry professionals needs not be harsh on themselves about the fact that those beyond the industry or the client company’s domain hardly care about or remember their work. It’s is true of many other professions but is hardly talked about. 

According to this article from 2016, then number of new books published each year in the U.S. is  well over 1 million annually. In India more than 2,000 films are produced in various languages every year. If you consider the output from media brands – be it newspapers, magazines, online portals there are hundreds of thousands of ‘content pieces’ produced every year if you include news reports, opinion pieces, videos, podcasts and so on. Are all of them memorable? Definitely not. The same advertising thumb rule of >90% being just while noise is also applicable here. Nowadays, even a single Instagram post from a celebrity is fodder enough for news brands of repute to write a full-blown 600-word article about it – and that takes effort. Probably the team behind such initiatives are also involved and excited about the output as much the account team creating a social media post or price-off communication. But it’s the advertising industry which is always under the microscope from industry insiders about the output.

I am not defending mediocre work or suggesting that effort should not be made to create meaningful, relevant, clutter-breaking work in advertising. But we must accept that there will always be work which is routine or that all the general public will not care much about your radio spot or outdoor creative. The trick is in not allowing a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to creep in towards creating any piece of work – because soon that may become the default operating mode. 

Another point to remember is that not all ‘output’ is meant for everybody. A cinema connoisseur may not care for the latest mindless ‘mass’ movie and the audience for the latter may not be attracted towards ‘meaningful’ or ‘deep’ art films. Similarly with books and journalism – there is an audience for everything. I was reminded of this quote about Bribox the niche streaming service in the US: ‘“We try to be everything for someone, not everything for everyone.” Ultimately it is all about what interests someone. As I have often quoted, Howard Gossage said in the ’50s: ‘people don’t read ads, they read what interests them. Sometimes it is an ad’. Of course, evoking that interest is where a solid idea and good execution comes in. And that’s true for a news report, radio spot, movie, book or music. 

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