Ad agency professionals and their clients – the marketing folks at enterprises, pretty much know that a majority of the ads are simply ignored by consumers. Now there’s a new phenomenon to worry about: social media outrage.
Ad avoidance is a phenomenon not limited to digital advertising where a CTR of minuscule percentages is seen as a good metric. The problem has existed right from the days of traditional media – be it billboards, print ads, radio or television spots. According to Dave Trott, ‘89% of £18.3 billion spent on all forms of advertising and marketing every year isn’t noticed or remembered‘. That’s a colossal waste of money and effort.
Why is this so for decades? In my view, the reason is that the core team of marketing & advertising folks working on brand campaigns prefer to mostly play it safe. It is evident from a majority of the ads in categories where huge ad dollars are spent: consumer goods, automobiles, financial services and so on. The tendency is to follow category codes and believing that directly conveying the proposition is ‘good enough’. The clutter-breaking aspect could be taken care of by use of celebrity, media pressure and other initiatives. Even when new categories emerge – such as Fintech or mobile app based services, the tendency of most players is convey the brand proposition in the most direct (read bland) manner. Category codes exist across the board – cosmetics (before-after, problem-solution, a cut-away product window, glamour) automobiles (camera panning the features of the vehicle on a highway) and so on. Aside from category codes, very rarely do we see a relevant but unconventional approach when it comes to the brand proposition or its presentation. When it happens, the chances of breaking the clutter is high.
Marketers and ad agencies may earnestly set out to create clutter-breaking, entertaining or engagingly relevant creative every time. But for a combination of reasons – lack of clarity on the intent or brief, a process which leads to too many iterations and levels of approval may result in a watered down creative idea which is run-of-the-mill.
So in a way, the default route of marketers is to play safe when it comes to advertising, even while paying lip service to innovation and inclination to produce ‘best in class’ or clutter-breaking advertising. A majority of the ads would not be mediocre if that wasn’t the case. What are the likely reasons for such an attitude?
(a) under-estimating the consumer’s intelligence: ‘I get it, but is it too subtle for our audience?’ is a common conference-room comment when reacting to an unconventional creative idea. ‘Will it go over the consumer’s head?’ is a valid concern but very often marketers tend to use it as a cover to continue with what they think has worked
(b) Fear of risk and the unknown, the un-tested could be a factor playing on the minds of those creating brand communication. What if this approach bombs and I am answerable for the monies ‘wasted’ is also a genuine concern
(c) Not all brands have it in their DNA to revel in the negative publicity that might ensue if their advertising is found to be controversial and attracts undue attention. A Benetton or Diesel may deliberately create risqué advertising, which may not be every brand’s cup of tea. But overall one needs to wonder if enough is being done to ensure that the brands’s communication – be it a radio spot, a social media post, a TVC or billboard is given a chance to be noticed.
So my point is that playing safe and trying to please everyone is a common factor in most advertising output, designed by intent.
Now there is a new reason to NOT take risks: fear of offending a target group and being in the centre of a social media storm. There is no telling who may take offence to what: an ad, a logo, a product ingredient…anything can put a brand under pressure. Recently, an Indian e-commerce brand, Myntra changed its logo as an activist group found the original one to be offensive. For marketers, consumers are giving a new meaning to ‘see things in a new perspective’ and making other consumers see things which they can’t un-see’ anymore.
The rise of social media and the outrage industry
Some of the common comments we hear nowadays in the context of what we see on media include ‘Things were not so bad back in the days’, ‘Everything is politicised nowadays’ and ‘we’ve all been divided into groups based on political affiliations’. In my view, we have ALWAYS been this way – belonging to camps, groups having strong opinions on all things under the sun, gossiping about others. Mac vs PC, fans of one cinema or sports person over another, mad over one football club over another, one political party over another…the list is endless. The ‘othering’ existed but largely under the radar.
The rise of social media has given us all a platform and proved to be a great leveller in some ways. It’s both a good and bad thing as it has paradoxically united and divided us.It has turned the spotlight on ordinary folks – not just celebrities and those with access to traditional media. The rise of such social media coincided with a government change in India and at least here it appears that there are many who attribute the negativity around us to the change in dispensation.
In my view, it is to do with the changed social media dynamics and how each platform has come to be used. After all, technology is what we make if it. Instagram started off as a visual medium to showcase one’s point-and-shoot mobile phone photography. Now it has also turned into a platform for showcasing one’s political affiliation or cause. Instagram was initially scorned at by ‘serious’ DSLR professionals who looked down on those who have to resort to filters and effects to make photos stand out. Similarly, other social media platforms which may have started off with one intent and used largely in one particular way, have morphed into different avatars over time. Now it’s common to see political affiliation oriented posts on LinkedIn too which was once devoid of such. Less said about the toxicity on Twitter the better – it has changed unrecognisably from a platform where one shared real-time trivial updates to a space for no-holds-barred brawls on any topic – from politics to cinema.
The resultant noise and attention in traditional media has give a handle (no pun intended) to regular folks to have themselves heard or have their customer service issue sorted. It is not uncommon for someone to tag the CEO of a hotel to complain about the service at the property or bring attention to an issue to ‘influencers’ with large following in order to get traction. There is no telling which of these will go viral or go unnoticed. This unpredictability of an issue blowing up beyond control will naturally make brand teams even more wary than they already were.
Affiliations which existed prior to the social media age have only been accentuated now, driven largely by politics and echo chambers of news consumption. And it’s only going to get worse. In his book, ‘India 2030’, Sandipan Deb, predicts how ideology and technology will widen political polarisation over the next decade. Sharpening polarisation, aided by technology and digital media will only make brand owners more wary of the stance in their communication. In the context of Super Bowl advertising, this is what Rob Schwartz, chief executive officer of ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day had to say:
“Every client conversation I’ve had these days is about who is going to be offended by this ad. There’s a lot of discussion about risk mitigation. What that tends to do is that it makes things very bland and not effective or it forces you to look at universal topics like hope or humor.”Source
Brands still have leeway to be compelling
Specifically on the Myntra incident, I thought it was a case of imagination running riot in the complainant’s mind but creative output – be it cinema, music, logo or advertising is subjective. Everyone has an opinion about them. On hindsight, Myntra did a commendable job of retaining the brand identity as is and addressing a consumer concern which could have gained even more undue attention if left unaddressed. However, there is a cost to pay: the effort in change of logo across the board especially on printed material such as packaging.
Does it mean that consumers should not complain or voice their opinion? Definitely not. There is a lot of brand content out there which reeks of bias and stereotyping: depiction of South Indians in ads made in Mumbai & Delhi is one such. Brands on the other hand, aren’t exactly devoid of ways to be compelling or clutter-breaking. Marketing pundits say that today’s consumers expect brands to take a stand on societal issues or are more attracted towards brands which convey a higher brand purpose. I don’t think such a blanket ‘directive’ is applicable to all brands. Companies which offer a great value proposition based purely on the product’s features and benefits will continue to find traction. If at the corporate level, they take a stance on societal issues – such as the one for Racial Equity and Justice Initiative by Apple will make it more endearing to a certain target group.
The whole ‘brand purpose’ brand wagon and espousing a cause may not be a win-win situation for all brands, as a jewellery brand from India discovered recently over multiple campaigns. Even in that sphere, ‘going with an uncontroversial dream may well be better than adopting a lofty ideal only to abandon it‘.
It could be natural to allow the anxiety of ‘how can I ensure that it does not offend anyone?‘ when planning any communication project. There’s no denying that ‘fear of offending’ is a filter that more brands will apply when creating or evaluating a piece of creative. Despite the temptation to associate oneself with the politics of the day or sensitive topics such as religion, in order to come across as edgy or ‘with it’ the likely negative fallout is not something all brands can handle or benefit from. In the overall scheme of things, the same rules which applied for clutter-breaking work prior to the digital world apply even now: focus on addressing a consumer need with the product, create communication that is compelling, relevant, single-minded and focused on a real benefit.