Selling snake oil

snake-oil-salesman-big When things are uncertain, it’s very easy for charlatans to capitalise.
That’s always been the case, and probably always will be. That’s because when nobody really knows the answer, it’s easy to listen to someone shouting that they do.

I’ve seen this in advertising many times over the years – most notably in the digital space. People come in, throw around enough buzzwords to bamboozle people and make themselves sound like an expert.

People get caught up in trends, themes, and ‘the next big thing’. Andy Flemming’s summary of a day at Cannes this year captures it perfectly:

“1:00pm. Seminars. The agency model is changing. Do more digital. Tell stories. Be brave. Dream more. Technology will change everything. Content is king. Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.”

Many of these conversations still intrigue me because of the way marketers flock to them as if they were something new. In most cases, they’re not. If you need evidence, just take a look at where the term ‘Soap Opera’ originates. Content, anyone?
It seems that the more things change, the more some things stay the same. Advertising Hall of Famer Howard Gossage (1917–1969), said the following in the middle of last century:

“The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

So, you can call it ‘content’, ‘engagement’ or whatever you want, but the simple fact is you have to make your message interesting. Now, that may mean making it newsworthy (PR?), or entertaining (ads?), or useful (platforms, utilities?), but nothing has changed since Gossage’s day – only the means in which we deliver it.

Sure, some may throw conjecture on what the media and marketing landscape might look like in the future. However, we do need to consider the fact that very, very few marketers are willing to grasp the concept of making engaging content. They’ve had six decades to make great TV ads, but how many TV ads are great?
Often, in a bid to ‘make the ad work harder’, they slip into over-playing their hand. And when that happens, it usually ceases to be interesting and turns into someone trying to sell you Amway.

And here’s another thing to consider. In today’s world, it’s the bean counters who have taken control of the marketing industry. As John Zeigler writes in his article, The Demise And Rise Of Our Industry:

“The finance department likes predictability of performance, so their default option is to view investment in creativity as a luxury, compared with the necessary investment in media exposure. Media spend can be controlled, modeled and predicted in a way that creativity cannot.”

So, it would seem that as people are crying out that creativity and branded content is the future, in reality, aren’t we drifting further from it?

One response to “Selling snake oil

  1. I would go a step further and say that most people that call themselves “Storytellers” aren’t and never will be and that attending seminars, workshops and conferences usually prepares one for an excellent career at attending seminars, workshops and conferences.

    Thanks for a well constructed article and for reminding us of Gossage’s sage words.

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