The real problem with advertising: message malfunction

Posted by: Tom Nelson
Wed 01 Sep 2010 02:09 p.m.

Tags: accenture, advertising, at&t, charles schwab, cialis, ford, message, message overload, nikon, vizio

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Some say it's now over 3000 (Number of ad messages you see each day, that is.), but here at Gardner Nelson + Partners, we are not so concerned with message bombardus increasis. (Actually, we try to do a little more of it every day.) Nope, what bothers us is how badly all these messages are communicating what they're supposed to communicate.

How often do you find yourself asking "What was that for? ...What are they talking about? ...What did I miss? ...Who thought that was a good idea?" (Trust me, these are not the questions a sponsor wants her audience asking after her page turns or her spot runs or her banner flashes.)

Me? I have no idea why Ashton is pitching Nikons. I didn't know why Accenture was selling Tigers. And I'm unclear, if it's so effective, why that Cialis couple is sitting in separate bathtubs.

But even more troublesome than this increasing lack of clarity, few messages today have much persuasive impact. What is it about your product or service that might make me think or act differently?

The worst are the ads that act like I know what they're talking about.

Mystifying ads that assume I've heard of them before, know what they're talking about, and care about their brand as much as they do. What is a Vizio? And why are they dumping Beyoncé in a box?

But dumb advertising has always been with us. Is it really fair to say that the amount of dumb advertising is increasing?

Yes, it is.

Ford's new campaign instructs us to "Drive one." What happens if we want to drive two?

AT&T tells us to "Rethink possible." The possibility of what?

Charles Schwab informs us that "Investors rule." So that whole worldwide economic meltdown was our fault?

These are big smart corporations, and they're spending billions to send us these messages. Perhaps most inexplicably, a lot of these outfits used to have pretty good messages.

For years, Ford asked "Have you driven a Ford lately?" Somehow they managed to communicate that this year's models offer some improvements.

AT&T told me to "Reach out and touch someone" and made me feel like a nice person for calling my mother.

And Charles Schwab invited me to "Ask Chuck." Brilliant. Would've never have asked JP or Goldie. But now it's an afterthought to "Investors Rule."

Okay, maybe the old messages were worn out and needed to be replaced. But why aren't the new messages better?

We believe that there are a number of factors conspiring and converging to make it harder than ever to create smart powerful messages. Some happen within the walls of ad agencies and media companies and web designers. Some really are the clients' problems. And some are an inevitable by-product of broader changes reshaping our world.

And although there's a certain frustration to see all that money creating all that confusion, that's not the thing that really bugs us.

We just happen to believe there's never been a bigger need for smart, clear, powerful messages that make things happen. Why isn't this industry making more of them?

In our next few posts, we'll be exploring some of our theories.

Unless you did those ads for Ford, AT&T, Schwab, Cialis, Nikon, or Accenture, in which case maybe you should get back to work. 

Messages that miss photo