Any impiety may be lawfully committed in love, which is lawless—John Lyly, Euphues (1578)
In no undertaking, other than between lovers, has there been as many accusations, rightly or wrongly, of fraud, negligence, and undue influence between parties as there has been in advertising. And nowhere can we find modified truths so widely and smugly used as they have been in the pursuit of a lover or a consumer.
As ethical advertisers in bright, white, shiny armor, we’re not entirely powerless in the face of the status quo in this regard. Here are a few but effective things we can do to beat the Casanovas, while staying away from their dirty little games: first, mend the rules of engagement; second, don’t be superlative, be incomparable; and, lastly, resist the one-night stand.
Mending the Rules of Engagement
While all continues to be fair in love, more and more is regulated in advertising. From overarching principles to rules that govern specific categories of product, claims, target audience, and media, advertising laws have become plentiful and increasingly comprehensive. What’s sad is that this, at least for consumers, hasn’t helped much.
Laws, whether broad and principle-based or specific and prescriptive, are imperfect. Broad, principle-based regulations are subject to interpretation. Specific, prescriptive regulations are limited to a predetermined set of cases, which may leave a countless number of regulatory realities out of scope, opening up potential workarounds for the clever and committed.
While imperfect, advertising laws constantly evolve. Whether these are rules drawn up by a mandated government agency (such as China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce) or industry associations that aim to self regulate (say, the Advertising Board of the Philippines), there is room to influence the direction and speed of these changes, which in turn determine ongoing success.
As advertisers and producers of goods and services of quality, our interest is best served by a fully functional advertising regulatory environment where ads use compelling storytelling, riveting drama, and breathtaking visual, auditory and other sensory effects to bring out the best in a product rather than to bring out something that is, in the first place, not even there
By actively supporting our advertising regulators, we maximize the returns we make from our investment in the quality of our wares.
Be the Cat in the Rat Race
Where regulators are weak and big-budget advertisers tricky and heavy-handed, advertising claims tend to be inflated and less trustworthy. In such environments, ads are less representative of the quality of the underlying products and “claim wars” ensue. Manufacturers race for the top spot by making increasingly fantastic and decreasingly consumer-relevant claims, such as 100 times stronger hair, 200% fairer skin, or 99.99% anti-bacterial protection (all exaggerations, of course).
While, if true, these claims would certainly be fantastic, if too many manufacturers make the same claim, you may be facing a case of numbers manufactured through unfair comparisons. For example, will it be fair to claim 99.99% skin germ protection after experiments involving 10 consecutive washes? Probably not if consumers rarely wash even just two times in a row.
It is important for good-intentioned advertisers to step back, understand the points of contested comparison, and consider abandoning winning in these areas altogether.
Allow others to chase the top spot in de-germing, for example, and find other points of relevance for consumers. By being incomparable instead of superlative, you can stand out more easily and also avoid competing for a spot in an evermore fragmented piece of what is possibly a much bigger and broader marketplace.
“Small World” Ethics
Consumer needs are not static. They evolve over time and faster than we expect. Half-truths can only last for so long before they are revealed. When products don’t deliver, it is unlikely that the same consumer will be fooled again.
For Casanovas, there are enough women to go around for a lifetime of one-night stands. But for global manufacturers of consumer goods, there are only so many consumers in the world. What’s more, in this borderless digital age, these consumers talk to each other. So while all’s fair in love because it is lawless, all’s well that ends well in advertising despite its lawlessness.
Print ed: 09/09