Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Advertising as Association: Warranty as an Open Card

Every wakeful moment of ours there are two things that keep happening invariably. The first is that we continue to be ever so unaware of our real internal selves. The second is that we become constantly ever so aware of external things which are not necessarily real. The first is related to the ego that we grow with. The first is not the focus of this blog post. The second is related to a ubiquitous phenomenon called advertising. What began as a management process to provide information to those who need has become a managerial process or profession by itself. When we see a newspaper today we see more advertisements than news. When we view electronic media, we see already broken stories that are further fractured by advertisements. When we go through any event, we encounter directed self-promotion rather than genuine public purpose. Everything in life, including organizational life, seems to be anchored around mutual advertisements.

Advertising may be defined as the non-personal communication of information, usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature, about products, services, events or ideas by their sponsors through various media and channels intended for consumers. Professional advertisement, however, has gone far beyond the classic definition. Persuasion had long ago become competitive persuasion but has not stopped there. It has now become visually overwhelming demonstration even against natural instinct and personal space. The day newspapers started having full page advertisements as their cover pages, the day popup advertisements began clouding any information in social media and the day self-promotion became a surrogate to performance, truth has started becoming a casualty in some manner or the other, and to some extent or the other. Like technology, advertisement is a product of modernity that needs to be utilized for the good it offers rather than the distortions it creates.   

Creative but crafty

Advertising is a process that is considered creative. Similar products and services are presented in different ways by advertisers solely because of creativity. Like fine arts, advertising requires creativity while staying within the prudential limits of decency, integrity and realism. Even global products need be presented to reflect local tastes and preferences, embedding cultural ethos in presentations. Advertising happens through multiple channels such as hoardings, posters, print, radio, television, cable network, television and social media popups, besides word of mouth. It is considered the essence of one of the four essential ‘Ps’ of marketing, product, price, positioning and promotion. Advertising can be subtle or gross; it can just provide cues or mandate action. Over time, advertisement has become a specialized science of consumer psychology, seeking to understand, influence, and shape consumer mind.

Viewing in a very objective way the deluge of advertisements that impact our senses day in and day out, one can easily understand that advertisement is not only creative but also crafty. Crafty is a fairly broad word, ranging in definition from artful to deceitful but in essence implies a clever way of achieving objectives by artful and deceitful methods.  Advertisement unfortunately is made most on products that are either injurious to health or those whose health claims are plain exaggerated. Massive advertisements for sugared drinks and processed foods typify the former while intensively child focused advertisements for growth and memory exemplify the latter. Advertisements do expand demand and help companies create more supply side wealth. Advertisements which are paid for by companies create huge employment and also help media subsidise their services. Advertisements also can be great tools of responsibility messaging and social engineering. That should not limit us from exploring betterment of the art.

Style rather than substance

Advertisements are fundamentally supposed to be persuasive based on facts, rather than perceptions. The more technical and functional a product is the more important such factual explanation becomes. The more lifestyle and personal a product is the greater is the reliance on perceptions and imagery. However, advertising has strayed from mainstream objectives so much that these two propositions are not followed faithfully. Where products are technical, company rather than product is the base of advertisement. Advertisements have moved from building product equity or brand equity to building corporate equity. Measures to promote Google, Microsoft, Cisco rather than their products stands out as an example. Also, advertisements have started focusing on scale and pomp rather than facts to impress. The ever increasing garish advertisements in realty space as well as full page advertisements in India are a classic example.   

Apple iPhone advertisements in India are another example of condescending approach that brand and corporate driven advertisements can take. The advertisements expect the users to be psyched further into product supremacy with overwhelming product imagery, and some minor price concessions. When advertisements go long on style truth suffers. Airtel is presently running a very engaging creative advertisement series on its 4G network and nationwide data, and voice connectivity therefrom. The advertisement mesmerises people over the daily call drops they suffer in their core cities. The Indian advertisement scenario is replete with several suggestions of style without substance; the several campaigns by jewellery houses on gaudy ornaments is just another example. There is no correlation between the ornaments pf crores of rupees they advertise and the actual simple jewels that crores of Indian population can really afford.   

Life of style or lifestyle?

Advertisements in India have induced a lifestyle that is consumption oriented rather than consumer oriented. They have impacted the attention span and processing ability of individuals on matters that are more central or crucial to life. One is exposed to several advertisements that talk about offbeat products; like special rice for diabetics, health insurance for elderly, attractive mutual funds etc. However, not one advertisement would care to expand on the theme to advise how the products actually are offbeat. In some advertisements, thanks to the regulators, risk factors are provided but in such small print and with such disclaimers that no one can decipher any contextual meaning.  The objective of advertisement has been to encourage people to resort to additional or excessive consumption to achieve a life of style rather than a lifestyle that is truly consumer friendly. It is not surprising, therefore, that the expenditure on advertisement as a percentage of sales tends to be higher than expenditure on product development itself!

Despite lack of information or even information that brings out the downside, companies continue to be blasé about their claims even as consumers continue to get swayed by advertisements. For example, despite the indictment in a judicial court in USA that a talcum powder of a leading company had cancer causing potential, the products of that company continue to be advertised as the safest even for the most tender skins without any reference or disassociation with such developments. When a food giant reintroduces its product that has been withdrawn, no explanation is offered in the relaunch advertisements on how the reformulation is different. The reason is that advertisements create a strong sense of association between consumers and their dream lifestyle through their products, and companies are indeed loathe to impact such positive associations with any negative association, even if it is established under certain circumstances.

Association, the key

Association is the relationship between two data items that is established through feeling, expectation or through memory. Creative and crafty advertisements seek to establish a positive and desired association and position their products as the providers or enablers of such association. Soaps, for example, seek to establish a clear association with skincare while some specialized soaps with hygiene. Ayurvedic products bring out association with natural cure, bereft of chemicals. Electronic products focus on specific attributes such as picture clarity to promote real life visual experience. Not all associations of advertisements are positive, however. The advertisements of yesteryears on cigarettes associated smoking with heroism and cowboy style, and in hindsight had been extremely negative for life and living. Advertisers continue to be crafty; even though advertisements for alcoholic drinks are banned they continue use surrogates and brands. Even more harmful are some advertisements which are sexist, crass and titillating. While there have been mechanisms like advertisement council to legislate standards and handle deviations, such mechanisms have been post-facto, and hardly serve to undo the damage.

There is a need to put in place alternative templates of advertising. This blog post suggests that all advertisements must have two sections; one the visual and descriptive part as now and the other a technical part which provides technical details of claims in a manner intelligible to common persons even. When an ayurvedic product advertises itself as having 21 herbs, the least that must be done has two components. The first is the theoretical aspect of what each herb is purported to do as per ancient texts. The second is the practical aspect of how the company has, in its view, succeeded in bringing those benefits to the product by virtue of material isolation, product quality and validated clinical trials. Similarly, the maker of a fan/air conditioner could speak of comparative strengths in terms of airflow, noise levels, motor/compressor durability etc. True and authentic advertisement is the one which can make an open commitment to consumers on product quality based on specifications, manufacture and usage with expected benefits. Each advertisement for any product or service needs to be an open warranty card more than anything else.  

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 31, 2016

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