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Pet peeves about advertising in a digital world

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Advertising has changed over the years. Or shall we say it has evolved and adapted as it always does, to suit the media environment, consumer trends and changing times? Deep down, the fundamentals of advertising and marketing have and will remain the same forever. Products & services have to meet a genuine human need, solve genuine problems or capitalise on valid opportunity. Communication has to break the clutter, offer a proposition which is relevant in a compelling manner and appeal to the basic human instincts.

‘It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own’. 

Bill Bernbach

Such communication usually make the best use of the medium or the platform they are advertised in – be it TV, radio, outdoor or the web. Sounds easy? It obviously is not. It is even more complex in our digital world as the clutter is unprecedented and the consumer has the power to ignore brand communications like never before. Social media is full of funny, engrossing, clutter-breaking content put out by regular folks – so it is even more difficult for consumers to notice paid content from brands. So ad agencies and brand owners have challenges of a completely different nature compared to even a decade ago. While they have my sympathy, I find some practices – likely meant to adapt to the new world, irksome.

Adding to the noise: ad agencies seem to have concluded that the best way to take on the digital world is to add to the clutter. There seems to be a notion that a brand has to be present in every major media and platform, that too 24×7, through the year – whether it is relevant or not. Brands think its mandatory to put out a social media post or create ‘some’ communication on every occasion – Women’s Day, Independence Day or happenings such as the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a compulsion to create a web-film, a Facebook page, an Instagram post whether relevant, clutter-breaking in that environment or not. On a platform such as Instagram where individuals post stunning images and fun short videos there are so many brands sharing run of the mill stuff, ill-suited for the platform and standing little chance of breaking clutter.



Hashtag overdose: another development meant to make the brand cool and ‘with it’ is to use a hashtag – no ad seems to be complete without one. Sure I get that a hashtag is simply a marker to convey a tactical short lived message, but more often than not the effort seems forced.

Disappearance of craft in print advertising: a casualty of the constant ‘needed yesterday’ outlook in everything (in order to catch some imaginary deadline) is the ‘craft’, especially in print advertising. It is apparent in the state of English print ads in India where there is absolutely no attempt to engage the reader with interesting, compelling copy. A straightforward announcement, offer and bullet-points as copy is seen as ‘good enough’. I don’t know what the reasons are for this stage of affairs but if clients rejected such ads and insisted on interesting work (as they sure do in other medium) things would perhaps be different. I guess the new-age copywriters & art directors focus on TV scripts and digital work and so aren’t really aware of what it takes to craft good print advertising – essentially a talent & training issue?

Chasing vanity metrics: the number of likes, shares and dodgy metrics like ‘engagement’ and estimated PR value is pegged as metrics for measuring market success.

Engineering’ causes, advertisers and do-good acts for awards: this practice has been around for years – ads for a proctologist’s clinic or a ’cause’ (e.g acid victims) would be created by the truck loads. In the digital world, causes (often frivolous) combined with ‘acts’ is the mantra. Lofty goals (e.g solving iodine deficiency in women, migrants crisis in Europe ) would be expected to be solved with a creative, out-of-the box ‘product’ which is too good to believe. Very often all that exists in the project is a slick case study film.

Forced brand purpose and a stretched higher order benefit: since several research reports have said that millennials prefer brands which ‘do good’, stand for a cause every brand has taken up one higher order benefit or even better a lofty brand purpose. Nothing wrong with that. But many have chosen causes which have a tenuous or no link to the brand – e.g. exam pressure and a fizzy carbonated drink. Thankfully many brands have realised that claims have to be matched with actions on the ground.

YouTube films as antidote to 30-second constraint: advertising on TV is expensive. Add to it the huge production costs of TV films (it is not uncommon to spend more than INR 1 million (approximately USD 130,000) in just the making of an ad film. In order to maximise the spends, advertisers would aim for more frequency on television – hence preferring 30-second ads (or better still 20 and 15-seconds). Conveying an entertaining, compelling story in 30-seconds is not easy.

For many creatives who ‘grew up’ with television advertising, the short duration constraint is a challenge and they hate it. They, naturally prefer a leisurely 45-seconder a 60-seconder. But high cost properties such as IPL are conducive to 15 & 20-seconders and hence what is commonly seen is a shorter edit which often does not do justice to the longer version. Sometimes, if the audience has not seen the longer ad, the ‘story’ in the shorter edit is barely understood.

In that context the ‘no-duration-constraint’ web film format is a welcome relief for creatives. So they pile on the long format films whether the central idea demands it or not. I am not suggesting that long format films (like long copy ads) cannot be engrossing but in that environment of movie trailers, how-to videos, comedy clips and UGC with millions of views it will take some extraordinary story telling to break through that clutter – a needlessly long film is not the answer.

Everything as the ‘next big thing’: there was a time when a Facebook page was a must-have for brands. And then it was a Twitter feed, a mobile app, an Instagram feed, influencer marketing, voice and so on – all are considered the next big thing and recommended for brands. As I said before, such forced presence results in content which is run of the mill or worse still, a ‘social media ghost town‘ as Tom Fishburne called it, way back in 2011.

Brand ‘conversations’? Yeah, right: One common refrain of industry folks and academia is that a distinct feature of new-age or digital marketing is ‘conversations’. That word gets featured so often in articles and posts – it riles me no end. What ‘conversations’ are consumers having with a beer brand or cooking oil? In my view, consumers are on social media platforms to share selfies, family photos, updates or rant on pet peeves – politics, state of media, movies and so on. The mention of a brand or service – in a good way or bad, happens in that context.

If someone complains bitterly about a telecom or airline brand’s service on social media (as is the wont) are they having a ‘conversation’? Far from it. The positive mentions about a brand could be about its quality or customer service. Where is the scope for a two-way conversation as it is normally happens? Imagine a bunch of friends having a chat in a coffee shop (pre-COVID of course) and a furniture brand pulls up chair to join them. Does it ever happen? Another over-hyped term of the digital era.

Aside from above, there are other minor irritants like relying on Google Translate to translate content from English to Indian languages (to save costs?).

Sure many of what I have outlined above have been around for decades, but to use a term commonly heard now, have been ‘amplified’ of late. Do share your views.

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A marketing communications professional with a keen interest in all things advertising. I share creative ads and views on the ad industry here. Views are personal. See Disclaimer for more.

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