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  • Lou Killeffer

Why Have Ads Got to Be So...Bad?

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

At the risk of stating the obvious, and in all fairness before berating an entire profession of which I’m proudly a part, most people dislike advertising; some dramatically so. This isn’t news. The many outstanding exceptions duly noted, we all know most people hate most ads and we’ve known this for a long time. We also know why - because so much of the advertising is, well, so dreadful. Indeed, if there’s any news here it’s that it appears the situation isn’t getting better, if anything it’s getting worse…

Yet the question remains why? Why is so much advertising so bad? Why among our many accomplishments can’t we, they, someone - anyone - create a preponderance of consistently good advertising? And how by the way, can so many have gotten so much, so wrong, for so long?

Ads Infinitum, Ads Nauseum

The reasons behind this enduring, industrial-scale failure have been debated for decades and won’t be resolved here but a roundup of the usual suspects always includes:

  1. Increasing pressure to deliver immediate sales results OMG. You mean we gotta sell this stuff? As if this hasn’t always been the case - or might ever not be. Everything looks a lot easier in the rear-view mirror. “They sure had it made in the 60’s and 70’s”. Yes, indeed, there were fewer brands, fewer media outlets, more restricted and regimented retail distribution. But still it’s hard not to see this complaint as self-serving hindsight. Yesterday's advertisers didn’t know they were living in the good old days. The work may have been better but that doesn’t mean it was any easier. I suspect it was as highly competitive for them as it is for us. Sure, everything’s changed but isn’t the pressure to produce the universal constant; like it or not isn’t produce or perish evergreen?

  2. The shift from traditional to digital media Oh, please. Yes, things are decidedly different. From consumers to messaging to shopping, everything’s evolved on a continuum going back decades. Advertising’s also evolved but has it progressed; has it improved? We’ve all been living through continuous digital disruption for what, twenty-five years? Folks that’s a generation. And how long has it taken advertising agencies to wake up and smell the coffee? Welcome to 2021. Sorry but the sell-by date on this excuse has expired. (See Advertising-in-the-Age-of-Alexa)

  3. The eroding state of relations between clients, their agencies, and the consumer Granted, there are market dynamics that threaten to pull previously stable relationships apart. Far too many to unpack here. But doesn’t it all come back to trust? And isn’t trust based on mutual respect and experience? Yes, there are real and troubling issues. But a close examination shows most of these particular problems present as self-inflicted wounds. (You’ll find more here Trust-the-Challenges-CMOs-Face-Today)

  4. Mad Men versus Math Men, the rubber match Big Data takes on the Big Idea for all the marbles in what’s increasingly viewed as the crux of the matter and, depending on your point-of-view, maybe advertising’s Armageddon. But if marketing communications, for the sake of argument, can be reduced to the sum of creativity and accountability then this has always been in dispute. Success is finding the elusive symmetry that combines the two. “This is great. Go with your gut”. “No way, we need to test it.” Something's always been sacred in ad land and it used to be creativity; now it’s numbers. But resolving the natural tension between the two is the whole idea. Why can’t advertising be both wonderful and work? Don’t the best campaigns do both effortlessly? (More on this continuing family quarrel can be found here Mad-Men-Seek-Math-Men-the-Sequel)

People “f---ing hate” Ads

The preceeding observations right or wrong, the fact is, advertising’s very public problem persists.

While numbers vary by device, age, and gender, today roughly 27% of American adults use ad blockers online. That’s 84,000,000 consumers who’ve said "Enough. No more!" And just imagine the number of their like-minded brothers and sisters who through simple inertia haven’t yet found the time or energy to invest in a blocker...

Again, acknowledging the many, many notable exceptions, including the often positive reviews for the Super Bowl, (advertising’s annual attempt at reconciliation with the public), an entirely random, unscientific sampling of internet commentary (scary, I know) routinely yields scathing remarks like these (expletives deleted):

  • I hate all ads, all of them, everywhere, all kinds

  • Ads are pollution of the mind

  • Everyone hates ads, at least everyone I know, no one wants to be told what to buy

  • It’s brain trash and really sad when kids can’t do multiplication but recognize Ronald McDonald

  • Hopefully someday advertising goes away forever, especially online where it destroys the entire experience

  • It’s all terrible; just so super intrusive, annoying, and creepy…

Further, consumer antipathy for most advertising is an issue that’s openly acknowledged by advertising’s leading practitioners. Perhaps best exemplified by this brief exchange from Tiffany Hsu’s report in The New York Times a little over a year ago:

“People hate advertising,” said Joanna Coles, former Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines, during a session at the Advertising Week conference last month in New York. “And it’s all advertisers’ fault.” Seated next to her, nodding in agreement, was Marc Pritchard, the Chief Brand Officer at Procter & Gamble, one of the largest advertisers in the world. Ads, he said, are often irrelevant and sometimes “just silly, ridiculous or stupid.” “We tried to change the advertising ecosystem by doing more ads, and all that did was create more noise,” he said.

Candid, clearly. Self-aware, yes. Smart, sure. Still this quite public passage is downright shocking, and even if that’s the point what then’s the outcome?

Looks Like Carl Was Right…

Ultimately, one of my early mentors and most remarkable bosses, the inimitable Carl Ally, who with the equally extraordinary Amil Gargano ran one of the greatest agencies of all time, may have had the final word on the sheer mediocrity of most advertising. (See Ally & Gargano)

When asked what he thought the real trouble was, after some delightfully unprintable comments about clients in general and a few New York agencies in particular, Carl simply said: “Well, sure, most advertising sucks. But Lou, how many really great restaurants are there? Most of them are just ordinary. It breaks down to the 80-20 rule, right? Which of course means more work and more fun for us!”


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