When did we all become morons

18 May 2016


Mark Mullen
Mark Mullen

When did we all become morons

Advertising’s increasingly sophisticated techniques are just as bad as spurious claims

Recently a group of MPs pointed out that internet broadband providers have been overstating the performance of their services, but it turns out that providers are not in breach of current advertising guidelines, even if only 10% of customers can obtain their fastest advertised speed. What?! That’s a bit like saying that you’ve won at roulette before you’ve even entered the casino! How can such an outrageously misleading claim be considered reasonable or fair?

But broadband providers aren’t the only ones taking liberties with claims. More and more banks are given to saying nice things about themselves. They appear to have invested in random ‘three word generators’ to describe their various products and services. Of course, and unsurprisingly, all the words generated are positive. The word ‘fair’ keeps cropping up. Trouble is, ‘fair’ is a matter of opinion, don’t you think? One person’s definition of what constitutes ‘fair’ might differ from another’s and anyway, I’m really not convinced that any bank should be allowed to describe themselves as ‘fair’. Not yet, and at least not while they are repaying customers who were mis-sold PPI. To my mind the Advertising Standards Authority has work to do.

Way back in 2010, a consumer goods giant was fined £10.2million for abusing its market position and overcharging the NHS for a heartburn treatment. Old news? Yes, maybe, but then just last year a court in Australia ordered the same company to stop selling some of its popular painkiller brands after finding tablets marketed for specific complaints, such as back pain or migraines, contained exactly the same active ingredient. The company admitted that drugs sold in different coloured packets that claimed to be targeting specific (and different) types of pain all contained the same active ingredient. It sold them at almost twice the price of their standard products and significantly more than the generic equivalent.

And I know I’m not the only person who has noticed the phenomenon called ‘shrinkflation’. Last year, newspapers ran articles pointing out that more and more food producers were reducing pack size and content but leaving prices where they were. Essentially ‘less for the same’.

Hot on the heels of a new car emissions scandal, this time in Japan, VW has arrived at a settlement agreement with the US government. They will offer US customers who bought their diesel-engined cars buy-backs but it turns out that they don’t plan to offer UK consumers the same. Now I must declare an interest in this case because I drive an Audi with the mysterious ‘defeat device’ installed. Why the difference between the US and UK? Apparently it’s because we have less onerous emissions standards so in short, it wasn’t as difficult to cheat European standards as those in the US. What?!

Where do we draw the line when it comes to claims and advertising? Writing as one who has worked in the advertising industry for many years, I can tell you that much of its attention is focussed on making the sale. To this end, advertising is making more and more use of behavioural data and of behavioural psychology (what we do and what we think or believe). I want to find another word to describe what effect this creates but truthfully, the one that really works for me is manipulation.

Advertising is manipulative.

I don’t suppose anybody will be terribly shocked to read this (particularly broadband and banking customers!), but they might be surprised at just how sophisticated advertisers (and through them brands) have become. Consider a very straightforward example like word association. When an advertiser continually uses a word in association with a brand they do so to create association in the mind of the customer. It doesn’t make it true, it just creates associative recall. But here’s the rub, it turns out that this very blunt way of influencing actually works! Say it often enough and it enters our sub-conscious mind.

This is genuinely worrisome and it’s only one simple technique in the advertiser’s repertoire. Advertising has long since become a science but as the techniques have multiplied, happily so too has our ability to smell rats. It begs the question; why do some big organisations and big brands continue to think their customers are morons? To quote David Ogilvy, the famous marketer, ‘the customer is not a moron, she is your wife’ - or your husband, or an engineer, or a doctor, or a teacher or a mechanic or a fitter. When will brands start to remember this simple but powerful truth?