Do Ad Messages Have a Credibility Problem?

'Advertising today is a truth-free zone,' Baskin tells ASRC

Noted critic of marketing Jonathan Salem Baskin will talk about how advertising is losing its credibility to anyone who will listen to him, he says, including a room full of marketing and advertising attorneys.

While that might seem like a disconnect, Baskin and the advertising lawyers he addressed Tuesday at the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council’s conference in New York share a similar mission: to bring truth and accuracy in advertising.

“It’s not just a compliance issue,” says Baskin, an author of six books, including Branding Only Works on Cattle and Tell the Truth: Honesty is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool. “As the folks who care about accuracy and are tasked with substantiating claims, you have a role to play.” 

The trouble with today’s ads is that they don’t make the ad useful for consumers by providing them with information they need about the product.

“We slice and dice the truth, without necessarily communicating the rest of the truth. We’ve also embellished it. Sometimes we ignore it completely,” Baskin said. “Advertising today is a truth-free zone.”

As a result no one should be surprised, Baskin explained, that a recent Nielsen study found that half of the public doesn’t believe advertising messages.

So what’s a good ad? Baskin offered several examples.

First, it should point out a functional benefit. As a positive example, Baskin brought up a Tum's ad from a few years ago showing a guy trying to eat a chicken wing, but the food kept slapping his face. “Is your food fighting you?” the ad asked. The ad got right to the point, which Baskin appreciates.

“Tum’s is not a lifestyle choice,” Baskin noted.

Ads should also seek more affirmation from third parties, like Clorox did for its “Green Works” product line, which partnered for the launch with the Sierra Club.

“I don’t know why we don’t do this on everything we sell to the public,” Baskin said. Why, for example, didn’t Dawn dishwashing liquid seek a partner for its ads showing oil-soiled ducks being washed with it? Why doesn’t Chipotle have a third party verify its steroid-free beef claims?

Ads should inform and set expectations. 24 Fitness in Los Angeles decided to come clean about gym memberships, telling consumers that joining a gym won’t make you look great automatically; it also takes diet and exercise.

Perhaps, Baskin suggested, ad creatives are focused on the wrong goal.

“Ads aren’t supposed to win awards. You aren’t supposed to like them. They are not entertainment. Likability has no correlation to brand and sales success. We have to make them meaningful, relevant and useful,” Baskin said.

Tell that to any creative director, and they'll give you an earful of counter-arguments to Baskin's last point.