Are marketers alienating the people they spend billions to reach?
Children practice subtraction with M&Ms in schools that are draped with corporate logos. Telemarketers who can’t get people to answer their phones leave cryptic messages on answering machines. Supermarkets demand to know a shopper’s phone number and address before they’ll give her a dollar off orange juice. Brands and logos are filling up public spaces–buses, street corners, playgrounds, sports stadiums. How much is too much?
As integrated marketing efforts move to new heights and marketers in crowded
categories become increasingly aggressive, there are signs that an unwelcome consumer backlash is brewing. The biggest worry for agencies is that people are so dazed and cynical about ads they automatically tune them out or turn them off. As we venture into this new century, consumer disinterest may mushroom into frustration, distrust and hostility.
Anti-advertising and marketing activists have always lurked on the fringes of the
cultural landscape, generally treated as oversensitive crackpots by the mainstream
marketing world. But attitudes are changing. Controversies once limited to special interest groups are infiltrating popular culture. The danger? The more that marketers intensify their push for consumer attention, the stronger the resistance could grow. Ads, marketing and brands that seem tolerable, semi-interesting and even cool today could be seen as the enemy tomorrow.
“The growing practice of placing ads and logos everywhere seems a desperate last attempt to make branding work according to the old rules,” says Diane Cook-Tench, former ad executive and founder of the AdCenter advertising graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “As telemarketing, advertising, promotions and the rest continue at a frenzied pace, the value of the messages decrease. The system seems headed for a large implosion.”
At Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, Jeff Goodby says he’s surprised the level of commercialism in sports and education has gotten this far. “The vines have already grown around the house,” he says. “I thought the public would have rebelled by now.” Instead, people say they don’t like sports commercialism, “then they put on their Nike shirt and go to the game.”
Pete Blackshaw, who recently stepped down as Procter & Gamble brand manager for interactive marketing to start customer response site Planetfeedback.com, says marketers, including P&G, are at a critical crossroad. “There is a lack of discipline in the marketing system now. It’s not consumer-centric, and that will backfire on all of us,” says Blackshaw. “The companies that win [in the next decade] will be 200 percent candid in their marketing and will need to draw lines” where ads are or are not welcome and acceptable. “Consumer empowerment and feedback will be the way to earn loyalty.”
Marketers got a glimpse of the future during the massive anti-corporate protest at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in December. Nearly 50,000 people of various ages and backgrounds took to the streets to vent their dismay about a host of issues. There was one common theme: All had a gut-level resentment toward big business and global commerce. And big brands are big business.
The connection between advertising and the negative effects of †bercommercialism “is the elephant in the room that no one is talking about,” says David “Jelly” Helm, once a creative director on the Nike account at Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam, and later a creative mentor at The Martin Agency in Richmond. “To be a success in advertising is to be myopic,” he says. But to the outside world, marketing to kids “is so blatantly manipulative,” it makes people take a hard, second look at the whole industry. Europeans are already there, says Helm.
Mari Cortizo, a former account planning chief at (former Chiat/Day London office) St. Luke’s who joined creative shop Blazing Paradigm, San Francisco, last fall, sees the trend as part of the price of technology. “As the Internet and other advances open up communications between marketers and the public, people will get bolder in questioning everything that the marketing world is feeding them.”
Executives at Nike, a brand that lives and breathes by its marketing, are reluctant to discuss such trends. “If we thought there was a marketing backlash developing, we would not want to tip off our rivals,” says a representative. Lately, Nike’s marketing programs in schools, as well as its logo placement in public places, are undergoing careful company scrutiny in relation to shifting public sentiment, sources say.
Marketing to Kids
Kids marketing and market research of children in schools are the hottest of the hot buttons. Clients such as McDonald’s, Exxon, Coke, Pepsi and Calvin Klein pay cash-strapped schools for the right to put promotional materials on school grounds, or they supply teachers with free learning materials embellished with the company logo and philosophy. Whittle Communications’ Channel One accelerated the trend in 1989, and the debate hit the national press about three years ago.
Depending on who you ask, banners, book covers, TV and computer programs spiked with ads are seen as corporate America assisting schools, savvy marketing or shameless hustling to a captive audience. While many schools want to cut even more lucrative deals with corporate sponsors, the number fighting the approach is growing. Aided by the Internet, activist groups are successfully swaying school boards and legislators.
For instance, California passed a law last year that places restrictions on exclusive soda and electronics contracts. Congress is mulling a nationwide study about in-school advertising and a requirement that parents must give permission for companies to track students’ Web activity.
Last year school marketing critics garnered widespread publicity when a math book littered with brand references was pulled from California schools. In response, companies like ZapMe!, which delivers in-school Net ads, are intensifying their push. Agencies can find themselves caught in the middle.
Leo Burnett planning director Kathy Lalley conducts in-school market research for the Chicago-based agency’s KidLeo marketing division. The money the agency pays schools for access can be an important boon for under-funded schools. “Should kids be able to go to school in a brand-free or commercial-free environment? Not at the expense of getting a good education,” she says.
Of course, a parent’s permission is required for the 10-20 minute online research session that taps students from the third grade up. Lalley contends that marketing to kids helps them make smart brand decisions as adults. Counters a youth marketing consultant, “Kids’ age of innocence is lost early to the marketing machine.”
VCU’s Cook-Tench sees trouble ahead. The branding of school texts, buses, school grounds and lessons is likely to backfire in the future, she says. “Once these students realize the brands were force-fed to them, they are likely to have serious questions about a company’s motivation and ethics. It’s another sign that the institutions people once trusted are changing and breaking down.”
Internet Privacy and Misrepresentation
On another front, the technology that marketers hail as an information-gathering breakthrough is quickly turning into a hornet’s nest of privacy problems. Direct marketers that gather, share and sell consumer information and Net companies that track and target Web users may find their high-tech wonders “could blow up in our faces,” as one direct response pro puts it.
Indeed, the Direct Marketing Association is threatening to expel members for not complying with the DMA’s privacy guidelines. At the same time, the Internet Advertising Bureau and others are scrambling to establish privacy policies for consumer data before the Federal Trade Commission brings down the regulatory hammer.
Adding a black mark to the industry’s credibility is the fact that sites that claim no consumer data is shared with outsiders often allow third parties to gather profile information about their users. The growing opposition has industry types worried. John Kamp, senior vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says that consumer privacy advocates want “to instill fear and distrust in all database marketing, both online and offline … which is scary for the [entire] marketing industry.”
Longtime direct marketing consultant Jim Rosenfield says distrust already exists. A 30-year direct marketing veteran who advises Fortune 500 marketers, Rosenfield insists his industry must take responsibility for the social effect of its practices. “Scavenging for personal information is a negative trend,” he says. “Data mining is obsessive, useless and causes trouble [because] it makes people uncomfortable. We don’t need it to market effectively. We are headed for a privacy apocalypse.”
Consumers, meanwhile, are stung by a lack of control over their personal information in everything from the Net to supermarket club cards, says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “People feel like [the marketing industry] is twisting their arm.” The effects are starting to show in the marketplace. For example, Albertson’s supermarket chain, based in Boise, Idaho, now brags in its promotions and public statements that unlike its competitors, it refuses to collect data on customers and eschews discount cards.
Steve Sturm, vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor Corp., says consumers tell his company what they want. “If you visit our site, we don’t take it as a license to send you stuff you have not specifically asked for,” says Strum. “We have no desire to bombard people; then you do not have happy customers.”
In the online universe, Internet guru Esther Dyson predicts privacy issues will result in a general reaction against ad and marketing practices. A government and industry advisor on global information technology issues, she says, “People feel over-marketed online, and their cynicism will carry over off line as well. They want to understand the terms of the deal.”
Sustainability, Global Consumerism
The third and newest consumer movement that attacks basic tenets of marketing and advertising revolves around the economic issue of sustainable resources. Scientists and environmentalists have long held that the Earth’s resources are being badly overused by consumer-oriented countries, such as the United States. But now, advertising is being held partially accountable for the problem. The sustainability movement assumes that ads and other forms of marketing convince people that buying more products will bring them emotional rewards, such as contentment and social acceptance. In short, ads that awards committees and clients love are ruining the Earth.
Agencies “continue to perpetuate a world view of continuous, unlimited and ever-expanding consumption,” says former creative director Helm, who now teaches art direction at VCU’s AdCenter. He tells his students, colleagues and anyone who will listen that a growing international movement to rein in unsustainable consumption will bode badly for the ad industry if the industry doesn’t change its outlook.
Sustainability is the next big thing, agrees account planner Cortizo. “It’s the kind of issue that can sway the fortunes of international companies. But people will want more than talk. They will want marketers to offer easy ways for them to do something about saving resources,” she says.
Gas-guzzling SUVs and fashionable electronic gadgets aside, the pro-environment outlook does seems to having more influence with consumers’ purchasing habits. A 1999 survey reported by the Associated Press puts harming the environment as one of the main reasons American consumers would refuse to do business with a company. Sponsored by the Conference Board–a nonprofit organization of worldwide business executives that provides education and research–the international survey shows about half of the U.S. respondents said they have “punished” a firm for not being socially responsible, which includes environmental responsibility.
Toyota’s Sturm says his company’s research of young drivers proves that Gen Y, or Net Gen as the company calls the population, want smaller, ecologically friendly cars made of recyclable materials that use less fuel. “In the next generation, affluent consumers still want ecological products,” he says.
Any form of consumer backlash will mean a different atmosphere for agencies. Some shops will follow their clients into new, more hostile territory. Others will lead. No doubt some marketing companies will work harder to get around the defenses of consumers, try more deceptive methods or move their market research to more tolerant areas of the country. Many will give hot social issues superficial lip service in their marketing as the trend of the moment. But it is also likely some will embrace the debate.
“It is wrong to say our job is just to do what the client wants,” says Mike Hughes, president and creative director of The Martin Agency. “Ads help establish what is cool in society; their messages contribute to the public dialogue.” Gap ads “showed white, black and Hispanic kids dancing together. Hilfiger ads showed it is cool for people to get along. Ikea showed a gay couple,” he says. The work needs to be effective at selling the product, but beyond that, “An agency can have a great impact on what is being communicated, even perhaps having a positive impact on society,” he notes.
Is it possible that to preserve their economic vitality, agencies will address consumer resistance by focusing on social responsibility and ethics? Will it become part of the equation when deciding which clients to pitch and which people to hire? At present, agencies often ignore clients that don’t match their principles, says Hughes and other agency chiefs.
“Tobacco companies, for instance, do not have an unlimited number of shops to choose from,” Hughes says. In response to a consumer backlash, that decision-making process could get more complicated. For the next generation of ad leaders, “it comes down to: Who are you going to create ads for?” says Tench. “You can choose which agencies to work for. If you are good, you can pick what account at the agency you want to work on. You can even influence the agency’s choice of clients.”
Perhaps, like the revolution in creativity in advertising, there will be a revolution in ethics that will set one marketing company apart from another. This won’t come as a surprise to the industry leaders who advise the AdCenter, including Hughes, Jay Chiat, Bill Westbrook and Dan Wieden, all of whom insist that ethics be part of the graduate program’s curriculum.
“A company has to be a good citizen,” says Goodby of the changing marketing environment. “It’ll be an interesting time to do business.