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Getting cut-through in advertising

In all this noise, one message will cut through

David MacGregor

[Education]

A very large and famous advertising agency once had a motto: Truth Well Told.

It came from an era when consumer goods were something special and new. Getting consumers to part with their hard-earned cash during and after the great depression of the 1930s wasn’t easy. There had to be a reason to buy. And the products had to be good—they had to do what they claimed on the box at least. It was an era when the concept of trust and reliability meant something because it had to mean something.

After the Second World War, abundance exploded. There was a massive increase in manufacturing capacity. Dog-eat-dog competition followed to make more stuff at lower and lower prices with only marginal differences in the products.

Manufacturers turned to their advertising agencies to ‘create’ the differences. We entered an era of rampant, meaningless ‘differentiation’—the rise of the contrived selling proposition and overwhelming media clutter. Media became such an invasive part of life that we were bombarded with thousands of noisy advertisements clamouring for our attention, day after day.

Attention became the commodity most prized by marketers. No matter how good your product was (or how bad), without the consumer’s attention it made no difference. Advertising entered a new, glorious age where it was taken for granted that there were no real differences between products. Brand A was as well made as Brand B. So the advertising itself became the point of difference. The challenge was to seem more likeable, more loveable even. The function of advertising became replacing functional differences in products and services. No longer was fuel consumption a driver in selecting a new car—modern technology made them all pretty good. We knew they were made by the same handful of manufacturers, after all. Car makers began to cover the engine bay with flashy panels to reassure owners that the technology was under control; leaving only a hole for the oil and water and no room for tinkering (which would void the warranty and introduce unacceptable liabilities). People stopped looking under the bonnet and started caring about the size of the vehicle’s cup holders (or flower holders) and who the designer of the new retro look was. Image became everything.

Then, one day, a small voice piped up on the newly-forged world wide web of human connections. It said: “Wait a minute. Slow down. There is just too much stuff. I’m not sure I want what you’re selling. It’s not about me-me-me anymore.

“I know what you’re up to. There hasn’t been a day in my life when I haven’t had commercial messages drummed into me. I know your tricks better than you do, buster.”

The advertisers paused, glanced at each other in that slightly perplexed way that people do when they hear small voices and said:

—Did you hear something?

—Probably nothing. Now, about the next campaign … it has to be bigger than ever but I don’t want it to seem to be selling anything. Boy are they gonna love this.

But the voices gathered and began to talk among themselves. In chat-rooms, online forums, blogs and email. They posted videos on the Internet. Their children were better-informed and more concerned than any generation before them, and had the tools to communicate and free channels to connect. They realised what mattered to them were old-fashioned things like better quality, safer products, that didn’t end up in landfills or turn their families into medical statistics.

Then, one day, they collectively sighed:

“Enough! You have done the talking for too long now. We want you to listen and listen good. We don’t mind you telling us about new ways of solving our problems. We want better solutions. We need better solutions for tomorrow and we will support you with our loyalty and trust if you deliver.

“But we want the truth, we want it well told and we want it now.”