|Advertising's Role in 'The Conversation'
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
There is an international panel gathering in Berlin where the best minds in the world can gather and pitch ideas that can change the world we live in. One of the people chosen was a professor from Columbia, who is arguing that framing a conversation in the right way can help leave all the bad ideas off the table, and essentially put the good ideas out in the forefront to be debated.
She offered the example of designing a building. Imagine you are leading an architecture firm. You're contracted by a company that wants a four-story building. The building is to have both stairs and elevators, but the emphasis of the building is to be the stairs. What does the savvy architect do? Easy enough; the firm decides to place the stairs in the middle of the mezzanine, right in front of the entrance, and the elevators are tucked in the back of the building. Are the elevators accessible? Yes. But does the company get its wish with the main traffic being the stairs? Logic would point to the affirmative.
What in the world does this have to do with advertising? A lot, actually. Like designing a building to attract moderate traffic to specific features, advertising shines light on the attributes of the brand it wants to highlight the most. Of course, there are going to be attributes we would like to be discussed more than others, and it is the role of advertising to be that channel and filter.
Let's take the recent Old Spice campaign as an example of directing a conversation. First off, did it compare itself to a bar soap? No. Did it even compare itself directly to other body washes? Indirectly, perhaps, but not implicitly. Its main goal was to get the consumer to think about how the scent they choose to wear defines them as a man. The recent ads didn't explain the science behind its odor-blocking, or explain the benefits (if any) between soap and body wash. W+K and company tucked those arguments in the back, and consumers could look for the information if they so desired.
With the rise of social media, we hear "experts" talk about how the consumer controls the conversation. As long as the information about the brand comes from the brand itself, and the consumer still needs to use that primary information, that claim can never be deemed accurate. Is it more difficult more brands to control an image? Absolutely. But brands can still ultimately decide what kind of battle they want to face.
Let's take on Bank of America's debit-card "flop." The bank wanted to charge $5 a month for all debit-card users because it was losing a chunk of its revenue due to a law coming into enforcement. Using the logic presented to form an argument that could have shown in BoA's favor, what could they have done? BoA should have started with the worst possible scenario for its customers, and then framed the debit card fee as the best alternative. But because BoA's MORONihan decided to go all legalese on a public that doesn't understand that language, they fell behind.
It is not being argued that BoA would have won the argument, but taking a better approach would have given the bank a better shot.
The biggest pushback against tactics like this is that some people would call these actions misleading. According to the professor from Columbia's logic, this would be considered persuasion. When discussions arise about "framing" a conversation, it is hard to avoid the debate over misleading vs. persuading. I would argue that misleading would only occur if consumers have no way to access all forms of the information and no ability to make their own decisions. Persuasion occurs when the brand provides all the information and highlights the points that best fit its argument.
In a free market economy, theory has it that consumers have "perfect information" and can choose the winners and losers of the market. The players involved can use advertising to highlight certain points in the information to increase their chances of being picked.
So what is advertising's role in the conversation? Advertising helps the converstion move along. If the consumer decides to forego their own due diligence, or needs an extra push based on the information they have, they can look to advertising to provide enough supplemental information. But like it or not, advertising still has the driver's seat, and the consumer is still far away from driving.
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