Can we “handcuff” marketers to prevent them from doing schlocky work?
In a recent news article, a group of Honda dealers complained that in the face of slumping sales, corporate HQ needed to relax its marketing “rules.” Apparently, in order to get co-op advertising dollars, dealers had to refrain from doing and saying certain things. One dealer said, “I'd like to see Honda take the handcuffs off of us and let us be aggressive.”
What are the “handcuffs” preventing these dealers from doing? Using all the advertising buzzwords and sales gimmicks that make most advertising people cringe and turn the car buying process into a royal pain. “Blowout.” “Inventory reduction.” Bait-and-switch lowball pricing.
Is there a cure for low-rent advertising? Do people simply respond well to bad or condescending marketing and messaging in spite of all our best intentions?
When sales dip in the auto business, principles get thrown out of the sunroof. It’s hard to look a car dealer straight in the eye and tell him he can’t use a phrase like “blowout” in a commercial when directly behind him is a whiteboard showing a piss-poor monthly sales graph. I’ve been there, and seen it myself. Or as a client of mine once put it, “If you’re not yelling, you’re not selling.”
Such pervasiveness of bad work in a category like automotive sends a signal to all the other heavy media spenders — the carpet cleaners, the payday lenders, the mattress stores — that anything is acceptable if the end result is higher sales. So it’s not just the cheesy car dealer ads that move the needle. Formulaic ads work. Junk mail and old-school letter packages work. At least, they work on enough people to justify endless repetition of the formula.
Even political advertising — which so many people claim to loathe — works, otherwise politicians wouldn’t be constantly fundraising to pay for it. And since that type of advertising is protected political speech instead of less protected commercial speech, a candidate or organization can run ads saying pretty much anything they want to about an opponent. Yes it’s nauseating, but negative political ads work or else we wouldn’t ever see them.
But in terms of consumer advertising, there’s a deeper conundrum to face: What do we do when clients say, “the current advertising isn’t working,” or appear desperate to reverse a sales decline? Do we listen to our clients and merely do what they want? Can we persuade them with the insistence that “your brand is better off in the long run not appearing desperate.” Are we willing and able to successfully push back on their demands in the name of better creative and more restrained, less insulting messaging?
The reality is, no matter what our best intentions might be, there is always someone — a creative team, an ad agency, a “marketing communications firm” pretending to be an ad agency — that’s willing to do bad work for money. Somehow, the lowest common denominator seems to pay off in large denominations of greenbacks.
Perhaps we should insist that marketers like Honda keep the handcuffs on their dealers. Maybe the “handcuffs” are what prevents auto dealers from perpetuating the business practices that have given their profession a low trustworthiness rating in opinion polls — a rating that’s usually down at the bottom near, uh, advertising practitioners.
Keep in mind, if Honda HQ acts like an “ad police” as suggested in the article, it’s a bit of self-policing — the kind our industry trade groups always like to tout. Perhaps we ought to be happy there’s any restraint at all in the advertising business. Never mind award-worthy. It’d be great if this type of work were a few steps above cringe-worthy.
As the business world becomes more price-sensitive, and profit margins everywhere become tighter, corporate marketing departments and advertising agencies get squeezed. So do the photographers, developers, printers, and ancillary businesses that make the work happen. The pressure’s on to keep moving product. But that’s no excuse for capitulating to a bottom-feeding level of work.
Here’s hoping the Honda dealers, and the rest of us, take a lesson from old Ford ads: Make quality job one.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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