The Consumer Republic

Who’s on First?
For the champions of Great Creative, it’s been a rough couple of months.
Mr. K has generated as much suspicion as an undocumented alien. For Prudential Financial Services, dreamily photographed retirees contemplating the meaning of life have been replaced by blue-suited financial advisors promising to steer consumers through the thicket of the new tax laws. Similarly, the seagoing sybarites of the fabled Norwegian Cruise Line campaign were buried at sea.
We wait to see whether the decades-long relationship between Levi’s and Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco, which has produced a shelfful of advertising honors, will or will not go on. We are even forced to think the unthinkable: the possible unraveling of the relationship between Nike and Weiden & Kennedy, as a changing client seems to be losing patience with its agency artistes.
Philistines! The defenders of Great Creative grumble.
Clients, focused on their quarterly numbers, don’t understand the mysteries of communicating with consumers. The sad fact of life, Mr. and Ms. Client, is that the audience is not interested in your marketing objectives. They don’t really care about your product attributes (which, more often than not, are indistinguishable from your competitors’ attributes). The audience cares about itself: its needs, interests, pleasures. Great Creative is great, the argument runs, because only it can tap into the irrational wellspring from which great consumer-product relationships are made.
But does it? Forget for a moment the question of whether ads-as-entertainment actually move products. Forget client objectives. Do the ads the industry professionals honor, love and emulate always translate into a great communion with consumers?
Three marketing professors, Arthur J. Kover, William L. Hames and Brenda S. Sonner, devised an experiment to find out. The researchers selected four product categories: restaurants, financial services, automotive and sneakers. In each category, they selected one spot that won a One Show award, another that had been honored with an Effie and a third representing what the study called “plain old” advertising. These ads were shown to 103 agency creatives from New York City and a random national sample of 69 TV viewers.
After watching each ad, the participants were asked for their personal response. Did they like it? What feelings did the commercials evoke?
Guess what? With one exception, the creatives liked the ads that won the awards. Their “personal” responses were filtered through the professional standards of their craft. Not so for the consumers. They neither knew which ads were industry icons nor cared.
Yes, consumers agreed that some of the Great Creative was great. But they thought the same of a “plain old” ad that made the professionals cringe with embarrassment. At the same time, consumers not only disliked some of the award winners, they claimed to be angered and confused by them. “If we had not rigorously controlled the contents of the reels, one would have thought that different advertising had been viewed by the viewers and the creatives,” says the report. It may be true, as the artists insist, that consumers aren’t really interested in a client’s product attributes. But if this study is to be believed, they aren’t necessarily moved by Great Creative, either.
From this small sample, the academics draw some big conclusions. Award-winning work communicates all right, the researchers claim, but not always to consumers. It speaks to other creatives. So what do viewers care about? I hope you’re sitting down for this one: feeling good about themselves. Viewers want, “if only for a few seconds,” to feel “competent, affectionate and alert.”
The problem, this study asserts, is that advertising creatives are more interested in feeling good about themselves. Is this just the old rap that creatives are overly self-indulgent? Not exactly. The charge is that the advertising world is self-referential. The researchers’ remedy to this insularity is a bit radical.
The anodyne: Break up the Bernbachian teams, they say. Stop locking creatives in a room with each other, where their professional prejudices hold sway. Don’t rely merely on account planners, who, while ostensibly serving as “consumer advocates,” in fact play to peer approval as much as creatives do. Open up the process to “viewer representatives.” Bring them into the meetings where they can make sure their own interests are being served. In short, remind everyone of the only approval that counts: the consumer’s.
A grotesque scenario? Perhaps. But when it comes down to choosing whether the consumer or the creative feels good, you know who is going to win. It makes one wonder which, in the long run, poses the greatest threat to creativity in the ad industry: the client’s bottom-line concerns or the consumers?