Of half baked truths’ Blatant lies and lack of respect

Of half baked truths’ Blatant lies and lack of respect

By Ahmed Kapadia

Truth is relative term in the world that we live in. These days I spend a lot a of time in front of the TV watching Israeli (“innocent victims of terrorism”) futilely carpet bomb “Islamic Fascists” in Lebanon in to submission. The worst part is that the bastions of credibility in our world, the BBCs and the CNNs who “put news first”, all sound like apologists, even mouthpieces, justifying what was essentially a one sided war.

Sick of it all, I flipped the channel and saw Fox News, “Home of American Journalism – Balanced and Fair”, break out into a tirade of how “I-ran” under an increasingly bellicose president Ahmedinejad is the latest threat to the pace loving world and is responsible for everything ranging from armed Hezbollah perpetuating the poor Israeli military action in Lebanon to the outbreak of the bubonic plague and the eruption of the Vesuvius. It seems everyone has taken the US’ worldview and version of events.
No one has bothered to delve deeper into the matter and report credibly because the truth may not be what fits in their grand scheme of things. The truth is that Iran under its obligations as a signatory to the NPT (Non proliferation Treaty) is authorized to do everything that it is doing, including its enrichment activities. The fact that so far no sanctions have been imposed on Iran is a corollary of the fact that there is no legal basis for it in international law. The Americans feel Iran should not enrich uranium simply because the don’t trust them. Apart from American discomfort, there is not much else driving the international crisis and the media is playing it up for all it’s worth.

Well, none of this should surprise any of us. The fact is that today, Israel and the West are innocent victims of terrorism while Muslims are collateral damage who regrettably but inadvertently get in the firing line. The fact is that Australia did not and will not accept asylum seekers but expects Jordan to indigenize 2.5 million Palestinian refugees with one-twentieth the land size and one- millionth the economic wealth. But such is the world that we live in today, like all malleable commodities truth is also molded to echo our unique point of view. The core axiom seems to be: “If you hammer lies long enough and to as many people as possible it’ll become the truth”. By present day American standards on terrorism, every one from Osama Bin Laden to the celebrated Anti-Nazis and even America’s founding father George Washington is a terrorist but somehow only Mr. O.B Laden seems to come to mind when thinking of ‘Terror 101.’

Some say advertising is also Like that simply because it create or tingles the darker side of human urges, insecurities and complexes to get people to take action (i.e. “buy things they don’t need”) in order to realize profits for someone else. I firmly disagree. Advertising in principle Is all about choice and exercising it. It represents a microcosm of the world in which we live in, it doesn’t invent anything, and it simply tells you what exists and how it can affect your life. But then again.. As I write this, I probably sound as bad as CNN or BBC window-dressing Israeli military action into “self defense”.

Truth be told … and I mean “truth” in all sincerity of the word, the fact is that advertising is all about choices, but like all other information dissemination mediums in the world, it is how information is packaged, processed and presented that makes all the difference.

Advertising is indeed about helping your customers make choices. However, like everything else, advertising has also become more about harping constantly about badly packaged, half-baked truths and in some cases even outright lies in pursuit of profit. But therein lies our fault – people like myself who profess to practice the profession of advertising and the clients who initiate brand communication along with the media that carries it through to a large enough number of people, make it become gospel truth.

However, there is a funny thing about truth, try morphing truth into something that it is not and you end up in a funny situation where you don’t make sense, don’t sound credible and start being called a liar, stupid and a whole assortment of names that you could really do without- Advertising has become something like that as well. Around the world, advertising is going through a crisis of credibility and in a nation of naturalised cynics like Pakistan; any advertising communication is now taken with a bucket as opposed to a pinch of salt.

Sound cruel, especially coming from an ad man, but that is the sad truth that we live with. These are indeed sad times, however on closer inspection, can the consumer be blamed? In a market where one of the largest ice cream companies (which legally cannot even call itself an ice cream) created an ad extolling the virtues of its latest product, telling kids to eat milk instead of drinking it. While I am not claiming that the good company may be lying (perish the thought!) however, there is something wrong with the way the proposition is phrased; Kids around the world still drink milk which most of them hate and eat ice cream which most of them love … the fact is that if there was such an intense breakthrough, kids around the world would have inundated ice cream stores for milk substitute ice cream.

This is perhaps the latest and amongst the growing number of brands that are perhaps over promising, not unlike the news channels discussed above who claim to put news first but then have blatantly one sided views on news. Today, if advertising is fighting a battle to win back lost credibility, it is a crisis largely of its own making. This state of affairs stems largely from advertising drifting away from proof of claim and claim support areas that should be cardinal concerns in brand communication.
Today an increasing number of brands are pushing the envelope in the name of creativity by overplaying hyperbole to a point where the brand is over-promising which is simply not sustainable. In an increasingly competitive ‘brandscape’ , advertising is not just about making choices but rather about making the right choices. Advertising must believe in what it says and that can only happen when it speaks the truth. Being creative is about making advertising memorable, not about making the product seem something that it is not.

If one was to define the core problem plaguing truth or the lack thereof in advertising in a nutshell, it is that brands today lack respect. Yes while I may sound like a disdainful parent, this is the core problem and nothing more.

As a first step, honest brands are made when their custodians are law-abiding: hence brands need to respect the law. Today, the media, the agency and the clients are all at odds working against and contrary to each other’s interests. The fact is that there are enough rules of conduct, principles and pieces of legislation about rules governing the working of advertising. However none of us, the client, the agency and the media, know them apart from the ones that either protect the rights of ourselves or circumvent the rights of others.

The standard excuse is that advertising legislation is archaic and holds back creativity. That may be true, but laws, however draconian, do contribute towards disciplining society, in this case, they make brands conform to some standards as law-abiding citizens and help them avoid mud slinging. Laws if antiquated and out of sync with modern realities need to be changed. This will be done by the custodians of the brand communication value chain: the media who will transmit it to the masses, the clients who have invested billions into government coffers in tax revenue and the agency whose design makes the other two profitable. The state will have to listen. The answer is more proactive legislation that makes brands conform to the truth and honest conduct as opposed to the ignorance of non enforceable laws that has resulted in a free for all on an increasingly flawed regulatory brand communication scene. Only law-abiding brands will be honest brands, it is that simple.

This lack of respect for the law is further compounded by a lack of respect for the consumer. Today, more and more brands are accused of not knowing their consumer. Brand critics credit the lack of research for the resultant brand blindness and brand managers and advertising agencies cry foul over the lack of budgets to initiate research. While I am not trying to underscore the boon that is consumer research, but until we get the resource commitment levels for it, brands can start off by crediting their consumers with some intelligence. Respect your consumer with the intelligence to understand brand communication that has more subtlety and finesse than a raging tornado. Today, most brands will lament the unimaginative glut of Pakistani advertising but will not take the risk of going with an imaginative solution to a brand communication need, since “their customers will not get it”.

The newsflash is that the Pakistani consumer is smarter than you would think and that is something you don’t need research to prove. Today the Pakistani consumer is exposed to over 200 channels that are beaming advertising and product content from around the world. The markets are flooded with grey market products which are selling like hot cakes. This shows that all that is new, different and uniquely propositioned honestly will find takers in a market of a 150 million people. There are brands which have walked that long road and have succeeded – no one needed to tell PSO (Pakistan State Oil) that they needed a face lift, but when they did, the public appreciated them for it. Around the country, Tapal, Ufone (albeit only in its embryonic stage) came up face to face with established competition and kicked ass. The message was loud and clear- makes a product, a good one and speaks about it honestly, chances are you are going to do well. Today, brands ranging from Nirala to Chen One are seizing the initiative and going global in the process and some brands like Ufone unfortunately seem to be losing their magic by confusing what they mean and to whom. In short, respect your consumer and you stand to be rewarded. Try patronizing them as imbeciles and chances are your brand will never be.

A chronic lack of respect for everyone involved in the brand value chain is perhaps the greatest bane of creative advertising in our scenario. Today in the brand value chain, everyone is out for everyone else’s throat. The agency, the client and the media while all interdependent on each other are ceaselessly trying to cut out the weakest link in the brand communication value chain. This lack of respect is a subject that I have written on voluminously and in the interest of avoiding loquaciousness will refrain from at present. The essence is that until the advertising value chain learns to respect each link, it will remain stunted in outlook and crippled in terms of honest, imaginative and memorable communication.

Brand managers more concerned with the agency’s purview are not paying attention to other areas of their domain, the most important of which is the implication of advertising on the bottom line, which is something that they have surrendered to the sales guy. The media trying to cut the agency out of the deal by directly going to the client should realize that once the agency is out, the natural course of action for clients would be to drive down media insertion costs. Lastly, for the agencies that are my breed, we need to collectively wake up and smell the coffee. The advertising profession has no respect simply because we demand it not command it with our action . Respect your clients and the media as equal partners and consistently perform for eons before you can expect tangible change. Reform is long road, but one that must be walked. Commit yourself to progressive change and then live up to your high ideals.

Last we all need to respect ourselves just a little more and be honest in what we do. Admit to our faults and introspect to a point where we seek the help of others whether we are clients, agency or media, Till we don’t do that we will continue to play the blame game and live in denial about what our faults are and more importantly, what we can do to make things better. In other words, in a world of hammered lies and malleable truths, we’ll just end up as collateral damage.

The writer is the managing director of Synergy Advertising.

Box Matter (1)
Advertising is indeed about helping your customers make choices. However, like everything else, advertising has also become more about harping constantly about badly packaged, half-baked truths and in some cases even outright lies in pursuit of profit. But therein lies our fault – people like myself who profess to practice the profession of advertising and the clients who initiate brand communication along with the media that carries it through to a large enough number of people, make it become gospel truth.

Matter in Box (2)
Today, the media, the agency and the clients are all at odds working against and contrary to each other’s interests. The fact is that there are enough rules of conduct, principles and pieces of legislation about rules governing the working of advertising. However none of us, the client, the agency and the media, know them apart from the ones that either protect the rights of ourselves or circumvent the rights of others.

Matter in Box (3)
Advertising has become something like that as well. Around the world, advertising is going through a crisis of credibility and in a nation of naturalised cynics like Pakistan, any advertising communication is now taken with a bucket as opposed to a pinch of salt. Sound cruel, especially coming from an ad man, but that is the sad truth that we live with. These are indeed sad times, however on closer inspection, can the consumer be blamed?

Box(4)
There are brands which have walked that long road and have succeeded— no one needed to tell PSO (Pakistan State Oil) that they needed a face lift, but when they did, the public appreciated them for it. Around the country, Tapal, Ufone (albeit only in its embryonic stage) came up face to face with established competition and kicked ass.

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