The Take on You

NEW YORK By popular belief, our industry is one that has been not only maligned, but much reviled by the general public. TV depictions—think Miles Drentell on thirtysomething—have been less than realistic or flattering. That show’s creator, Marshall Herskovitz, once told The New York Times that there’s a similarity between the crafts of advertising and TV: “It’s the basic silliness of what we do.” Hardly a noble perspective of our profession.

Today, AMC’s Mad Men is set against the backdrop of a ruthlessly competitive Madison Avenue agency, circa 1960. Even with the understanding that it’s a period piece, Mad Men, with its portrayal of professional arrogance, workplace improprieties—from sexism to boozing—and distasteful lifestyles, hardly casts the business in a favorable light.

In an attempt to bring some perspective to such media portrayals, JWT, in cooperation with Adweek, has taken a snapshot of everyday Americans’ perceptions of advertising and the advertising industry. To that end, we conducted a random online survey of 966 Americans 18 years and older from Sept. 5-12.

What immediately emerges from the data is a basic disconnect between the ad industry’s worldview and that of the audience: More than 42 percent of the sample describe themselves as a “pragmatist,” by far the most selected descriptor relative to “idealist” (25 percent), “skeptic” (18 percent), “hedonist” (7 percent), “cynic” (5 percent) and “geek” (3 percent). Perhaps this explains why the straight-up, feature-focused and end-to-end benefit approaches, like that of the recent iPhone launch, resonate so well today.

In Cannes this June, I definitely saw more hedonists and idealists than pragmatists among us. And after participating in numerous seminars and presentations at Cannes, the Clios and other industry events, I can say that far fewer than half of us in the industry share a pragmatic point of view. In fact, what talent types tell me advertising needs the most are idealists and geeks—people who can dream big dreams and inspire others to do the same. Thus, the great disconnect.

If perception were indeed reality, we could logically expect to see the musings of us ad types get rejected outright by an increasingly overloaded and time-pressed populace. According to this study, while there are numerous storm clouds on our horizon—both in terms of the product we produce and the esteem in which we are held by society at large—advertising still holds a pervasive influence and fills a range of ready needs.

Part of the Culture
Advertising is part of the culture. A large majority (82%) of the sample indicate an active engagement with media overall, with “traditional” media still trumping “interactive” in terms of consumption (59% of people’s time vs. 41%). It’s not a great leap from those results to the finding that fully two-thirds of this sample (67%) agree that “advertising is an important part of the American culture.”

What They Think
There is a direct relationship between the perception of the ad biz and the perception of what it does—most of which is deeply resented. The statement, “Too many things are overhyped now” generates an 84% “agree strongly/agree somewhat” response. “The Internet helps me make better product choices” generates 74% agreement. And “I get tired of people trying to grab my attention and sell me stuff” scores 72%. So it’s probably no great surprise that on the question, “Is the majority of advertising persuasive or not?” 61% say it’s not. Also, 47% “regard advertising as wallpaper or background noise.” On a more personal level, 21% believe that “the advertising industry understands and connects with me.” Nearly a quarter (24%) “resent advertising.” (These numbers exclude “Neither agree nor disagree.”)

Future of Advertising
The future of advertising. Where this debate needs to be engaged is in the context and content (see previous page) of the sell. The word of friends and family is by far the most persuasive in terms of credibility (86% each), compared with advertising at 44%. (These results exclude “Neither credible or incredible”). This makes it easy to understand why it’s imperative to learn how to insert brands into the world of social networks, which more than a quarter (27%) of the sample say they actively use. And we must find ways to engage in these networks beyond cyber-billboarding, which is ignored at best and resented at worst. (These results exclude “Occasionally.”)

Blog Buzz
In keeping with the JWT survey, a sample of blog posts suggests that consumers are, on a whole, fairly skeptical of advertising. Culling words from billions of unaided conversations, attributes like “false,” “deceptive” and “misleading” are highly associated with advertising vernacular (as can be seen on Nielsen BuzzMetrics’ Brand Association Map at right).

“The big thing that jumps out is [the idea] of advertising’s dark side,” says Max Kalehoff, vp, marketing at Nielsen BuzzMetrics (an Adweek sister company). “And related to that [are words including] ‘misleading,’ ‘deceptive’ and ‘spam,’ so there’s a theme of almost mind control or lack of authenticity. This is something the advertising industry really needs to look at.”

But all is not bad, adds Kalehoff. Other categories of related keyword attributes include advertising stakeholders, media and campaigns, reflecting a degree of familiarity with the industry as a whole. (Data Source: General Blogs, Sept. 1, 2006–Sept. 12, 2007)