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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
In defence of advertising
AD BREAKDOWN
The Magazine's review of advertising

Magazine readers have had much fun over the past week constructing what seem to them to be "rules" of modern advertising - cliches which have become too well-worn - eg cats are only fed by women. But here, fellow Magazine reader Cory Noonan, a creative director who has worked in London, Amsterdam, Sydney and Los Angeles, answers back.

To those of you who have taken great effort to lambast my fair profession I thought I might take a moment to share some general insights as to just why some things in advertising are the way they are.

Cory Noonan
First let me say that I agree. 90% of all communication (ads, news, conversations, etc) is lacklustre, trite or for the most part mindless. Tabloids and "reality" television lead the charge into the battle of white noise and advertising often follows in lockstep.

Advertising's hardest problem when trying to disseminate any message is not reaching the smartest group of people but often the widest group of people. This instantly limits what, and how, things may be said.

You can't joke about bee stings; bee sting victims will be offended. You can't joke about a forgetful senior; the elderly will be offended. Everybody will be offended by something.

To combat this, some advertisers feel it's best to play to the middle where the least number of people could be riled. Others advertisers will say anything to anger everyone except their core target market in an attempt to show just how edgy their brand is.

Competition

Companies have plenty to lose if a campaign fails. Some brands have taken years to build a following of very fair-weather consumers.


One false move and suddenly sales are down and your competition takes the lead. One more false move and you lose you job as brand manager. Mortgages and private schools need to be paid for. Play it safe and there is a better chance of maintaining a brand with slow growth and long term employment.

If you are not familiar with the phrase target market let me explain.

You are someone's ideal customer. 34-years-old? Middle class? White? Educated? BMW has the car just for you. It's not the top of the line but something you can afford, if you stretch. You may have noticed your favourite music in the background of their last TV campaign.

TVs
Sometimes, however hard you look, there's nothing there
When Mercedes starts playing Firestarter by Prodigy you know you're getting older.

When you see an ad that appeals to you there is good chance you are in that company's target market. You are not always the target market. You are not at the centre of the universe. Not every ad is intended for you.

If you hate the advert with the cute baby who won't eat its peas, chances are you are a single male. Somewhere out there, in another target market, is a mother who just clapped her hands together yelling, "Adorable!"

At the very most, all an advert can hope to do is create what is called "positive consideration". Positive consideration is a mental note, a shrug of the shoulders, which says, "That was all right."

Ticks

We do not expect you to run to the nearest store to buy a pair of trainers after you see the latest bus poster. An advertising campaign's job is, over time, to collect as many ticks in the plus column as possible.

When it comes time for you to choose between two like products, a company has its fingers crossed that its sums are greater than its competitors.

Sorry about the stereotypes, but I've got 30 seconds to tell a story about an absent-minded scientist. What does an absent-minded scientist look like? Black? Female? 19-years-old? 80? Glasses? Tuxedo?

Baby
Am I cute or not?
The reality is it's difficult to communicate an idea in seconds - let alone one we'd like you to remember. Visual economy is paramount. The faster the read the better.

For better or worse some stereotypes offer an instant understanding of a given moment. For those of you who would like us to mix it up a bit, please realise that we can't portray a middle-aged black man as ignorant. That would be racist. We can't portray a white woman as fat and lazy. That would be sexist.

There are many roles we have to avoid lest we offend the nation. Men - in fact, white men - are the de facto whipping boys because substituting any other persona would result in a firestorm of negative media.

Our hands are tied until we have a few hundred years of pure equality for everyone. Equality in life will eventually equal shared ribbing.

So what can you do?

Awash in the deluge of media, you are unable to stem the insipid slogans and foolish songs? I suppose you could act like a victim and complain about how it's all out of your hands or you could realise that consumers are more powerful than any corporation. Learn to vote with your money. Stop buying from brands that insult you. Write the occasional letter to a company and tell them in no uncertain terms that you are not an idiot.

Make no mistake, you are a part of the problem. Your inactivity perpetuates the status quo.

I recommend caring less. If what you saw on TV or in print wasn't effective you would never see it again. The fact is, it is working.

Products are being sold despite some poor creative and transparent ideas. Maybe you should learn from those who are able to disregard the nonsense and see advertising for what it really is: Information.

Take it or leave it.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I don't know what it says for advertising successfully reaching me as a target market when the only adverts I can ever remember having enjoyed were the many funny beer adverts that were around when I was a pre-teen! I buy products almost exclusively on their own merits, the only influence advertising has on me is that I do actively avoid products when they're adverts really annoy me.
Ian, Edinburgh, Scotland

The Adman makes some good points. Maybe in the same way that nations get the governments they deserve, so too, do we get the adverts we deserve. The British strike me as trite, shallow, homogeneous, and increasingly stupid - just like our adverts.
John Whelan, Haddington, Scotland

I have to agree with the ad man, but I still get annoyed by ads that are targeting me.
Jim, Somerset, UK

Thus spoke the Master of the Universe, full of the certainties of the Wash Whiter Than White variety! We are just sheep, waiting to be herded into the nearest supermarket by the Ad Men...or are we? May I remind Him that when ITV went off the air due to an industrial action in the late 70's, it had a negligible effect on branded sales...
Papas, Sheffield

Take the current crop of car ads, for morphing, disco dancing, hide-and-seek playing, 'tail' wagging cars. Each of them tries to bestow anthropomorphic qualities to their cars, but none of them tells you anything you actually want to know about the car. What total nonsense! You say that advertising is "Information." Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that advertising these days is all style, and zero content.
Steve Sutton, St. Albans, UK

i am a marketing student and have been involved in various market research projects both in university and in the real world. I completely agree with what is being said. trying to sell something to the masses and communicating an idea that will please people without offending is an art that is almost impossible to perfect
matt, Ilford

But we deserve better ads. Apparently, we're worth it.
Jonathan, England

Brilliant... Don't treat the public like idiots...but never forget that they are.
Anon

Brilliant! Concise, to the point, explains it all at a level that we can all understand. So much so that we say to ourselves "well that's obvious, I knew that really" and we realise our irritation at adverts is because we are sucked in by them, we have fallen into the trap and have not been able to "disregard the nonsense and see advertising for what it really is: Information." Give the guys a break and enjoy those ads that actually work, especially the ones that make us laugh.
David Monk, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA

I never watch adverts - in fact, I find they're the reason I watch television less and less. Especially during my favourite sport - Formula One - where the advert breaks completely ruin the coverage. If anything, it makes me hostile to the people who think I want to see their adverts for insurance/washing up liquid/whatever when I'm trying to watch a race.
Keith, London, UK

I'm afraid I treated this article in the same way that I watch adverts on the TV - I paid no attention to it and have no idea what it was about or what it was promoting. Do I win ?!
Dave Richardson, Milton Keynes, UK

Having worked for one of the top-three largest ad agencies in the world, I've seen exactly how TV, press, radio and online ads are created. Much of the time the 'client' has no idea what they really want to do, has enough money for a half-page magazine advert but they want 40seconds on a prime-time TV channel and has little appreciation for creativity. But the statement that advertising is 'information' is buff. Advertisers want to sell us things we don't want or need and try to create a market where one does not exist. If the market existed already, there'd be scant need for advertising. The best way to get around the ads, though, is to use something like TiVo. Don't think I've watched a TV advert for nearly two years!
Jason Anderson, LONDON, UK

Yes, advertising is information. The information in question is often lies, half-truths, spin, gloss, presentation and other manipulative types of information. How many people actually believe what adverts say about the products they portray? I suspect very few. But the prevalence of the brands, and the methods of presentation the advertisers employ, ensure that the ads are seen to 'work', so we get more of them...
Larry, Liverpool, UK

I work in advertising and my thoughts are that adverts are getting way too predictable. Yes, it's difficult to attract the target market, but give the public some credit they aren't all idiots who need to be spoon-fed. I say that marketing teams need to stop sticking to boring cliches and start doing some real work that impresses the consumers and breaks the mould!
Faye Metcalfe, London

I think most of us know these insights that Cory is sharing with us pretty well. I actually saw the 'Rules of Advertising' articles in the Magazine as brilliantly funny exercises in self-deprecation. Yes, we're sometimes mindless and lazy consumers and our adverts reflect this, but at least we recognise this.
Iain, London, UK

The fact that ads appear to work is no great praise - so does torture and corruption.
Alex, London UK

Fair comment, but if it came to choosing between the advertising described above or no advertising at all, I'd have to choose the latter... Thrice huzzah for the BBC and their steadfast refusal to have any truck with that sort of thing!
Ross, Exeter

It's so true. I hate cat food adverts. But I don't have a cat. I love the links deodorant. Yet I am a single male, who buys deodorant. (I actually don't buy links) The VW Golf advert, with singing in the rain remix, is great. I have though that if I would by a car (being a young professional) I might buy a golf. The advert that drives me mad, Asda. But then I'm not a mum (or dad) with 3 kids on a tight budget.
Rhodri, London, UK

finally, an advertising professional who tells the truth... if you don't like it, don't buy it. it really is as simple as that. Far too often the "general public" forgets that it has a mind, voice and opinion of its own. its time we all started using it. stop watching and starting doing.
Lyndsey Jackson, Manchester, UK

Advertising - on TV in particular - has surely never been so trite. Much of it has clearly been written and directed by a 14-year-old boy; the American-produced drivel for hair colorants and other cosmetics is an insult to the intelligence (even that of the aforementioned 14-year-old); and the plethora of ads for insurance companies and loans is beyond belief. If we must be advertised at could we not demand at least a passing nod to quality and wit? My wife and I have a policy of refusing to have anything to do with the products or services of any company whose advertising falls below par. P. T. Barnum was probably right when he said that no one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of an audience, but it would be rather more rewarding all round if advertisers displayed some intelligence of their own.
Barry Lane, Eastbourne

Why can't adverts just give you some facts and then get off the screen? "Buy Dizzy Washing Powder. It gets your clothes white. It doesn't contain harmful chemicals. It's cheaper than other brands. Buy Dizzy Washing powder" - All I need to know in 10 seconds. Instead I get bombarded with adverts from wannabe artshouse film makers. Take the current adverts for "3" with the musical Asian weirdness. If I hadn't heard of 3 before I would never know what they were advertising. Does it tell me anything about what 3 offers? Or where to find out more? Maybe the advertising companies should stop trying to be film directors and concentrate on getting a message across.
Tim, Sussex

Perhaps if the media portrayed more scientists as 25-30 males with great tans, teeth and six packs more people may take Science and Maths A levels and Degrees. Oh and i like the fact that its our fault and not theirs.
Tim, Bristol

Talking about corny and clichéd ads, what is with the picture of Cory illustrating the article. It looks like it was taken as part of a 70's ad campaign for men's shaving gear or Black Magic chocolates!
Tim, Darmstadt

I'm white and male - at long last someone has the courage to come out and say what we all know that we are the "de facto whipping boy". Personally I'm fed up with it and out of principle will not buy any product whose advertising uses this stereotype - in the same way I would not use products associated with "politically recognised" forms of racism or sexism.
MG, Liverpool, UK

I thought Cory Noonan's article was brilliant. If I was about to launch a campaign - I'd want him to be my Campaign Manager. And let's face it - you can always use the commercial break to go to the loo, channel hop or get a cup of tea!
Christine Parker-Harvey, Bournemouth, Dorset

I take his point about needing easily recognisable stereotypes, but this argument does nothing to further that point because it is not racist to portray a black man, or sexist to portray a woman, thus. An example of racism is when all black men are thought to be (or portrayed as) ignorant.
Colin Hughes, Leamington Spa, England

I humbly direct the author to the work of the great Bill Hicks, whose view on advertising sums everything up for me.
Rick, Brighton, UK

Mr Noonan's argument is merely an extended defence of mediocrity. Excellent adverts engage and entertain both target and collateral audiences.
Philip Derbyshire, Harpenden, England

Advertising exists because most people are easily duped. It is amazing the number of silly people who buy a product because it is endorsed by a celebrity. A celebrity is paid to do endorsements, and most likely they probably don't even use the product themselves. Just because an advert has a cute baby or a cute puppy says nothing about the product, but says a lot about what advertisers think of you. And most of them think that you are stupid and will buy bog roll to wipe your bottom because a cute puppy is in the advert.
Kevin, Dublin, Ireland

I'm always amused by people who tell me that they're immune to advertising, as I genuinely don't believe that any one is. Bad advertising can ruin a great product, and good advertising can create markets when none should exist. After all, I may loathe the Crazy Frog, I may hate the all-pervasive advertising, but I do know the words...
Alan, Dublin, Ireland

Adverts don't need to be targeted at the smartest group of people. They're perfectly capable of doing their own research. Advertising serves two purposes: to bring brand awareness to the indolent, and to subsidise independent television. It's latter function is vital in this day and age... Otherwise we'd be stuck with the BBC.
Oliver Barker, Farnborough, Hampshire

I'm fed up of the BBC's insistence on using gender-specific terms. I can't believe you're still using 'adman'. Has it not crossed your mind that women are now working in advertising? You are also guilty of referring to some soldiers as 'female soldiers' when it isn't relevant. Let me know when you've joined the 21st century and I'll stop complaining about this sort of thing.
Pachey, Stratford, UK

Advertising is against the public good, by definition.
steve, Exeter

You just contradicted yourself: Advertising is rarely information. Most of the time, it is just a nuisance designed to sub-consciously work on our minds. I am glad that I can zap away electronic advertising, but I am really sorry about all that wasted paper.
Holger, Bristol

Personally I will leave it. My wife informs me that I suffer two major problems, the first being retail phobia whereby within seconds of entering any type of retail premises I become agitated, stressed and not a nice person to be around. The second apparent problem is a total lack of understanding of advertisements - unless they actually say "buy this". I wonder are most middle aged males the same and is most advertising directed towards women?
Mark Schubert, Malaga, Spain

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