The Consumer Republic: Bad Ad-itude

It is a truth universally acknowledged that contemporary consumers are cynical about advertising. Every year, surveys show that the percentage of people who trust advertising is shrinking to ever-smaller single digits.
That’s what Mad Dogs and Englishmen president Robin Danielson assumed when she organized a set of focus groups last September that explored consumer attitudes toward advertising. It was a “brand check” for Mad Dogs, where, as at most creative shops, it’s an article of faith that media-saturated consumers think most advertising sucks. “Creativity” is all about staying one step ahead of the ad-weary consumer.
But what Danielson learned was that a lot of consumer cynicism about advertising is in the eye of the beholder. Respondents in groups held in New York City and Atlanta were more accepting of and more entertained by a wider range of advertising than most of the people who do it for a living.
The respondents sang jingles, marveled at the minds that actually came up with the stuff and unanimously agreed that advertising is better than it used to be. Asked to imagine a world without advertising, they conjured a Soviet-style dystopia–a gray, joyless “planet without desire.” In one such vision, great armies clashed on a darkling plain over a package of Mentos, the lone relic of a lost world of consumer choice.
There were, however, exceptions. Two New York respondents consistently gave the cynical responses Danielson expected. Sure enough, they were the ringers among the nonprofessionals: an account-planner-to-be and an intern who wanted to become a creative. “They were the ones who had the right answer,” Danielson says facetiously. “Advertising sucks.”
That professionals are more cynical about advertising than consumers isn’t surprising. Only amateurs, asked by Danielson to enact a meeting between client and agency, would view it as a wonderful game of can-you-top-this. (“And then the shoe comes down and crushes the Nike logo in the dust!” ran the triumphant conclusion of one “agency” pitch to an enthusiastic “client.”)
But Danielson’s ringers were not jaundiced professionals–yet. Is it possible that the ad business actually attracts people who are cynical about it? Maybe there’s an unconscious self-selection process that makes people who hate advertising more likely to go into the business. However it happens, ad pros probably share more attitudes toward advertising with the organizers of Buy Nothing Day than with the average Joe, who’s still chuckling over the Energizer Bunny after all these years. If everyone in advertising canceled their subscription to Adbusters tomorrow, the magazine would probably fold.
True, if advertising is better than it used to be, as consumers believe, they probably have professionals who hate the industry status quo to thank for it. Yet the Promethean drive toward the cutting edge that defines “creativity” has as much to do with the professional ambitions of angry artistes out to shock the bourgeoisie as the demands of the ad-resistant consumer. Perhaps the ads lauded as the hippest are not responses to consumer cynicism but purveyors of it.
Consider the sad fate of the jingle. The old-fashioned, follow-the-bouncing-ball jingle died out because everyone agreed it was too obvious, too fatuous, too hard-sell a technique to be accepted by savvy consumers. If you hate conventional advertising, these head-banging product tunes, fit only for parody, are probably one of the things you loathe. Yet in Danielson’s groups, people not only liked jingles, they remembered them. (“Mentos, fresh and full of life!”) Could it be that jingles have fallen into disuse not because they don’t work or consumers are resistant to them, but because advertising- hating creatives will not or cannot use them?
The secret to the public’s fatalistic attraction to advertising lay in its ability to ignore it. When asked to name commercials they liked, respondents had no trouble. But they were stumped coming up with spots they didn’t like. Not that there aren’t plenty of unpleasant, annoying, unlikable ads out there. But, Danielson reports, “If they didn’t like an ad, they didn’t notice it.” It is a pleasure that she, as a professional, is denied. “It’s my job to notice advertising. I can’t help but see everything.”
Danielson was struck by her respondents’ confidence that even in a marketing-saturated world, they remained in control. One man griped that the gleaming, oil-slicked cheeseburger bursting from its pillowy bun he saw in a fast-food spot bore little resemblance to the stuff he bought. Others in the group voiced similar sentiments, but we’re all wise enough in the ways of marketing to figure it out.
Consumers can afford to like ads because they believe they are fundamentally superior to them. And feeling superior to advertising is a luxury denied the people who actually make it.