Where’s the Transparency?

We used to talk — even brag — about truth in advertising. But it seems that truth has become such a technicality. We ad people have always been masters of rationalization. We can defend just about anything we say or write because we never really say or write anything that isn’t very carefully thought out. We choose our words very carefully.

I remember being amazed once, about 20 years ago, at a headline that had been written by the agency I worked at and approved by the “cosmeceutical” client. (Yes, some clever marketing wiz came up with that one — maybe the same one that came up with “hope in a jar.”) It read something like this: “This is the most effective formula we’ve ever created. And we can prove it.” Well, of course they could prove it. There wasn’t much to prove, except that this was better than the last stuff they made. But what the consumer understood was, “This is the most effective formula ever. And we have documented, clinical proof.” The product flew off the shelves.

The client and the agency weren’t lying, technically. But let’s not quibble over words. I’ve always been proud of being an anti-semantic.

Has anything really changed? It seems that in the world at large, it has. President Obama swears he’s going to have a transparent administration. He’s arguably our first 2.0 president. And any serious Web 2.0 client seems to go out of their way to be transparent about their brands, products and services. They know that’s the only way to earn the trust of their customers. They embrace the notion that consumers have evolved in their knowledge and understanding of marketing gobbledygook and double-speak. In fact, some CEOs have made themselves accessible to their customers pretty much 24/7 through tools such as Twitter. Consumers can actually talk to these guys, ask them questions or put their feet to the fire.

But it seems that sensibility hasn’t really trickled up to marketing communications in general. Here’s an example, and my favorite pet peeve in advertising copy: airline ads. “Low fares to Europe,” boasts the headline. And the prices are incredible. “JFK to Paris $159.” Wow. That’s amazing. Until you read that they are one-way fares based on a round-trip purchase.

With their rationalization, why aren’t we selling everything that way? “Shoes $78!” (Price is per shoe based on purchase of a pair.)  Or, “Bread, 10 cents!” (Price per slice based on a 35-slice loaf).

Of course, the masters of Advertising 1.0 are probably the phone companies. They’ve turned hiding the true total costs into an art form. The New York Times recently ran an ad from a telephone/cable company that read: “Last chance for a free DVR.” At the bottom of the page it notes, “Free for the first 6 months.”

We all talk a mean game about building customer loyalty — as long as it’s a one-way street. Do we try to finagle the truth just because others do it? And if others do it, then isn’t the easiest way to build a standout brand based on consumer trust and loyalty by simply not doing what the others do?

The consumer is not dumb. Even when we refuse to be transparent, they can see right through us. Unless we decide to rise above our silly old tactics, don’t be surprised when research asks, “Don’t you love our brand?” and the answer comes back, “No. You’re just like everyone else.”

Paul Cappelli is CEO and founder of The Ad Store. He can be reached at paul@adstore.com.

Previously by Paul Cappelli: “The Italian Job”