Advertising in the Information Age: Honesty
This is an open-ended series. My ideas and observations for a more wholesome advertising industry. This post is about ‘honesty’. Your idea of honesty might be a little different than mine or somebody else’s. Honesty in this post refers to the degree of truthfulness or lack of skewed information in advertisements.
Advertising has existed for as long as people have sought to spread ideas. It has its strict definition today – “the activity or profession of producing advertisements for commercial products or services” – but in essence, advertising is just the distribution of ideas (albeit biased ones). For the most part, we use the same mediums and activities to promote the benefits of a healthy body as the features of a home generator, or video games or community events. Love, joy, peace, hate can be promoted alongside local services, shops, and professionals. The internet is a popular place to spread ideas, but advertising can be done wherever senses are directed – podcasts, billboards, graffiti, protests, e-mails, churches, baseball fields, braille.
It’s unfortunate that so many groups and individuals have abused these mediums in the past for commercial purposes. Misinformation does not age well, and that’s too often what advertisements have been. Over decades of dishonesty (not all ads, but enough) advertising has become a less-than-holy profession in the eyes of outsiders who usually get the brunt end of it via commercial breaks or web popups.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from skilled advertisers. Which other profession has spent more time worrying about and more money tracking the effectiveness of a message or building systems to disseminate and establish new ideas? Give an experienced advertiser $200 and your message might drive more action than an average person with $1,000. Budget aside, an advertiser likely knows how to utilize free platforms – email automation, social media, forums – most effectively. They understand the field and how to play it regardless of the message being pedaled.
Advertising should inform, and often it does, but for the most part, traditional ads only serve to funnel potential customers to one particular option and apply some pressure to dissuade them from bothering to check for other options elsewhere. That is fine and within their right. Few would expect otherwise from an enterprise with payrolls and expectations.
But this is the Information Age. Never in history has it taken a layperson less time or effort to summon all of their best options for any choice – health, diet, dates, etc. Take lawn care, for example. Ask a neighbor for a referral on Facebook or NextDoor. Search Google, and sift the rankings on Yelp or Google Reviews. Submit a request to an aggregator like HomeAdvisor and let them find the best option for you. None of these are perfect but all of them serve to gather information with little friction. I don’t expect advertisers to not skew their messaging to favor their product, but it’s hard to reason that, in such an informative environment, the messaging techniques of old – grandiose claims, best of accolades – will hold up the same.
One effect of mass-information has been the emergence of a particular type of advertising, “content”, from companies with world-class brainpower and resources. Some companies commision writers, videographers, or other content developers to produce pieces that help answer popular questions or address trending issues. The idea is that by publishing the best information, they’ll earn the most views and become or continue to be thought of as an expert in the field. Advertising interrupts. Content entertains, or informs, or does something better than interrupt – found and passed on vs. force-fed. That shift in focus is a nice change for those on the receiving end. Of course, content can be malicious too. Ultimately it’s up to the reader/viewer to discern the garbage from the gold. It helps to check sources, etc. – everything we learn in the liberal arts classes.
Advertising is beginning to look a little less like convince-and-convert and a little more like inform-and-convert.
The New York Times suffered like any other newspaper this past decade. They recently bought Wirecutter, a review site, to present quality products within their editorial. They earn affiliate revenue for each product sold. Facing falling advertising revenue, the Times invested in a system to give readers helpful suggestions at the appropriate moment. Where advertising fell off, unbiased information fell in.
An article on Cloud Services from Amazon has to be honest, for example, or else it won’t be propagated by brilliant cloud developers around the world. A video on web tracking best practices from Google will only be referenced in mass if marketers find the shortlist agreeable. Companies seek to become Kings of the Information Age, not lowly solicitors in it.
I won’t predict that “bad” advertising – borderline or outright misinformation – will soon die away. Companies will buy it so long as they believe they can convince people to purchase or act before they’ve done their due diligence – searching, reading, talking with others. The bigger commercial issues, though, the ones with high “customer-acquisition-costs” and giant advertising budgets, will have to consider their messaging in the context of an ever-expanding Sea of Information. Many companies are taking caution not only to persuade but also to contribute with knowledge mined from within the ranks. Trying to battle the Sea is hopeless and, more pressing, a bad investment.
This all sounds nice, but I can hear the little demon on my shoulder whispering Cambridge Analytica, Politics, etc. etc. There is still a profusion of malevolence in the advertising realm, enough to keep the profession on the outskirts for a while longer. But, more and more at least, an advertiser’s job is to produce useful information for people, organize it sensibly, and deliver it well. That’s a byproduct of the Information Age and might eventually shift from nice trend to new norm.
A few of the challenges we face:
- Online privacy laws to prevent advertisers from preying on us.
- Fact-checking software or reader’s ability to disregard malicious ads disguised as informative posts.
- Continued support of honest content and advertising on viral platforms (Reddit, Facebook) and attempts to conceptualize and design better ones.
Coming Up – Non-Profits: Another benefit of the Information Age could be the elimination of advertising expenses for non-profits or mission-based organizations (as it’s mostly done for Mom & Pop food service shops in small communities). It’s uniquely difficult to get low-income or disabled audiences to utilize content. In my next article, I’ll explore how advertising is being approached by non-profits in the Information Age. Here is an interesting panel from NYC’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media on the topic.