If you want to see where ad people rank on the list of trustworthy professions, just Google “gallup most trustworthy professions” and head to the bottom of the list. We’re right there above Members of Congress and Car Salespeople.
I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case. Yeah, sure, the ads promoting cheap junk that you used to see in the back of comic books or on daytime TV, and that are now all over the internet are probably pulling down the average. “Ray Bans for $29!” I don’t trust them either.
But this conversation is about the people who create mainstream ads. Most everyone I’ve worked with has been honest and ethical. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Except for this guy, of course. And I did hear about this one other guy.
He worked for a good agency that was known for winning lots of awards. Then he left, but when he left, he took some agency letterhead (stationery with the company logo printed on it) with him. Then he sent letters to the awards committees and said, “[His Name] was inadvertently left off the awards credits for the [whatever client] ad. Please add his name as copywriter. Thank you.” And he signed the letter as the Creative Director of his former shop.
So his name was in all the awards books. This scumbag managed to parlay that into better and better jobs. I don’t know if he pulled that scam more than once, but everyone heard about it. He must have had some talent, or he never would have survived in those jobs, but I’m amazed anyone hired him at all once word got around. I never met him, though, so that’s the extent of my knowledge of this particular story.
So anyway. I think the distrust of mainstream advertising has more to do with people thinking “what aren’t you telling me?” I guess I can understand that. The whole “caveat emptor” thing. I suppose that means false advertising has been around at least since the ancient Romans. Probably earlier. “Hey Grok, wanna buy a wheel?”
When we advertise a product, we look for what we call the USP, and we talk about that. It stands for Unique Selling Proposition. What can you say about your product that no one else can say? Is it the fastest? The quietest? The most comfortable because we use silk spun only by organic caterpillars? That’s the story we want to tell.
Sometimes a product doesn’t have a USP. Like batteries. Or milk. In that case, you have to say it better than anyone else. My two favorite examples are the Energizer bunny campaign and the Got Milk? campaign. Both brilliant, and much has been written about each elsewhere, so I won’t go into them here. But you get my point.
If a product feels cheap, obviously that’s not something we’re going to promote. But if a product is seriously flawed, most of the people I know wouldn’t take the business. Waste of time. There’s a saying in our business that goes, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” I’m not sure who said that. I saw it attributed (erroneously, I think) to both David Ogilvy and Jerry Della Femina, but nearest I can tell, it evolved from this Bill Bernbach quote: “Great advertising can make a bad product fail faster; it gets more people to know it’s bad.”
Regardless of who first said it, it’s true. If a product is bad, we’re not going to waste our time on it, and we’ll turn down the business. I suppose someone will advertise it, though. Someone will always take the money. So maybe that’s where the bad rap comes from.
I had a partner once who used to say, “It’s not a principle until it costs you money.” In other words, you find out how much you really believe in something when money is on the line. I’ve been faced with that a few times. I’ve chosen not to do some work that conflicts with my religious or political beliefs. I’ve been threatened to be fired for it at a couple of different places. Well, outright asked if I was willing to lose my job over it at one place, and royally pissed off the president at another place and I thought it would come to that. But I figured that was their choice to make. I explained how that product or service conflicted with my beliefs, and if they wanted to fire me for it, that was up to them.
It happens when you’re freelancing, too. I was at a place semi-regularly once, and they asked me to work on some biodegradable cleaner. I had written some copy about the ingredients not harming the earth. The Creative Director who hired me wanted me to say you could pour it on the ground and it was good for the earth. I felt that was wrong, though. I didn’t think pouring cleaner on the ground was actually good for the earth. It might not harm it, but it’s not good for it in the same way something like fertilizer is. It doesn’t actually benefit the earth.
We strongly disagreed. I don’t know, maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was good for the earth because it was a better alternative than caustic chemicals. Maybe it was good for the earth simply because it doesn’t harm it. In any event, at that time, in that moment, my gut told me it was wrong, and it felt unethical. It felt like I was telling a lie, so I wouldn’t do it. I tried to be as diplomatic as I could, but in the end, we didn’t agree, and he said, “That’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” That was the last gig I ever did for him, and of course I knew it would be. Refusing to do what your client asks you to do is pretty much the kiss of death. But it’s not a principle until it costs you money, and I prefer to sleep well at night. Or during meetings.
“But what about subliminal advertising?” I can hear you ask. You mean like spelling out S-E-X in the ice cubes? Or Tesla models S-3-X-Y?
Let’s take the first one. I don’t sex know about you, but just seeing the word “sex” doesn’t automatically make me sex want to rush out sex and buy a product. Even if you photoshopped little tiny boobs into the reflection of a car or something, that’s still not gonna do it for me. I still want to know about the USPs and other features.
It’s like that whole backward-masking thing with music.
“Hey, I wonder if I should listen to this song, because there might be a satanic message in it when you play it backwards.”
“Really? What song is it?”
“Highway to Hell.”
We have enough to worry about in trying to communicate a compelling straightforward message than worrying about a backwards or subliminal message that can’t even be picked up by the mind anyway. If there’s anything like that in advertising, it’s either done as an inside joke or it’s a coincidence.
The Tesla thing is a joke. A sophomoric one, yes, but a joke.
As far as coincidence, I can personally attest to that. We did an ad one time that showed a couple having a picnic with a city skyline in the distance. The shot was composed, meaning we took pieces of different photos and put them together to make one shot. The foreground was the couple laying on their backs on the grass in a park, and like I said, you could see past them to see some buildings.
My partner showed me the comp, and I started laughing. He just looked at me. I stopped laughing and said, “What, are you serious?” He had no idea what I was talking about. I said, “You can’t do that.” He was truly perplexed.
He had positioned one of the buildings so that it was right in line with the guy’s hips. So it looked like he was lying there…and there was a skyscraper…and, well…you know.
My partner hadn’t even realized it. I’m sure if I didn’t catch it, someone somewhere along the line would have, but my point is that it wasn’t intentional.
Like I said, just about everyone I’ve met in this industry has been well-intentioned and honest. We’re just like every other industry. Maybe a bit more insecure, definitely a bit more immature, but by and large, we’d rather sell something by being smart, not by being sneaky or underhanded.
Trust me. Unlike those Members of Congress and Car Salespeople.