Welcome to the New Age of Bull*#!%
Deception in advertising is nothing new. We learn this as children when we go to McDonald’s only to discover the food doesn’t look anything like it does in the TV ads. No juicy hunk of meat, steaming hot, covered with perfectly melted cheese and nested in a fluffy bun. No, it’s this lukewarm gray stuff, but at least we like the fries and the shakes, so we learn to live with the disappointment and move on.
It’s the same in politics. Whether it’s Compassionate Conservatism, Hope and Change or some other promise, there are always those who are disappointed, justifiably or not, at a reality that never lives up to the promise of the campaign.
Now we’re hitting new heights, imagined in literature and played out in other countries, but never in the United States. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” If Donald Trump was a McDonald’s ad, the spot wouldn’t even bother showing food that resembled the burgers and fries served there. You’d see a prime Porterhouse steak, Caesar salad, potatoes au gratin, steamed asparagus and a glass of first-growth Bordeaux, all for $3.99. When you got to McDonald’s and saw the actual food, they’d simply say, with a totally straight face, “We never said you’d get steak.” Some people will be thrilled. What genius marketing! Others will say, “they never literally meant that you’d get real steak, they were just making a point.” And a lot of people will just be angry, but probably not angry enough to really do anything about the false claims. They’ll buy their burgers and get on with their lives.
Maybe we’d see a giant, Big Brother like poster on the walls. “Nobody knows fries better than me, which is why I and I alone can fry them.” (“Don’t mind those teenagers you see behind the fryers. I personally trained them all and presented them degrees from Fryer U. They are channeling me.”)
Businesses and politicians deceive consumers at their own risk. We’ll see what happens if millions loose health insurance overnight and those coal mining and manufacturing jobs don’t start coming back.
For advertisers, regulations, common sense, social media and an abundance of accessible information on the Internet hold them accountable every day. We all seem to allow brands to exaggerate to a certain point, but if they cross a line, there will be a price to pay.
Which makes an ad from Spectrum, the old Time Warner Cable company renamed, all the more puzzling. Take a look at it here. The first time I saw it, the spot actually got me for a moment, making me think that something new and exciting was actually happening.
“It’s a new day. A fresh start. Because Time Warner Cable is now Spectrum. Redefining what a cable company can do. Delivering world class customer service. And bringing 10,000 jobs home to America. Welcome to America’s fastest growing Internet, cable and voice provider. Welcome to Spectrum.
There are other versions of this ad playing as well, a longer-form spot that talks about “promises to be made, promises to be kept.”
Soaring, emotional music plays over images of sunrises, more sunshine, and happy, beautiful, young, always smiling Spectrum worker bees, dedicated to going the extra mile to please their customers.
And then I remember. Oh, right, this is the exact, same cable company. The one that erases my recordings. The one who’s app frequently doesn’t work. “Guide is temporarily unavailable.” The one whose website is often down when I go online to record a show. Nothing, nothing at all, is new.
Ultimately, the ad did have a profound effect on me. I switched back to DirecTV.
My fists clench and my jaw tightens when I see this ad. Maybe it’s just PTSD from the election. The notion that people can say outrageous things, tell bald-faced lies to our faces and get away with it doesn’t sit well with me. As time goes on, and we’re talking weeks and possibly months, not years, it won’t sit well with most other Americans either.
This is a time for humility. How great would it have been if Time Warner had taken the Domino’s Pizza approach? That company had the guts to run ads acknowledging that their product wasn’t really that good, but that they listened to its customers and made tangible, taste-able product improvements. “We’re the cable company, the butt of your jokes, the object of your highest scorn. We know what you think. But we’re not just changing our name, we’re changing the way we do business. We are not just making promises. We are taking action. High quality products. Unparalleled customer service. No bait and switch promotional deals. All guaranteed or your money back.”
Of course that approach means making real changes. Repeal is easy, but can you replace?
As marketers, it’s the “replace” on which we need to be laser focused. Under-promising and over-delivering. The 21st Century sense of entitlement and the ultra-cool, tragically hip, self-conscious personae aren’t going to work anymore. No more raspy female voice-overs touting the “goodness” of processed products or smug, detached Millennials making wry observations.
We’re going to need reassurance, and lots of it. And if our leaders won’t give it to us, let’s at least let our brands give it a shot. Companies that truly have your back, honestly invested in your happiness as much as they are in their completely justified profit motive, those are the companies that will connect and succeed. Companies with the image of, say, an honest, dedicated family man who has dedicated his life to the public good, with an incredibly bright, articulate and capable spouse and two amazing daughters. Someone untouched by personal scandal and the highest ethical standards.
In politics, it’s out with the old and in with the new. In marketing, we should be thinking just the opposite.