Friday, January 4

Advertising: It's An Invitation To Imagine

Expect to see plenty of communication foreshadows for the year ahead in January, but be wary of the ones that attempt to redefine terms. Advertising has an especially big target on its back this year, with some people calling it content, some people calling it mobile, and some people calling it a total failure. None of this is really new.

Advertising is an industry that has been driven by persuasion, awareness, branding, sales, and few dozen other terms since the 1950s. None of these starting points are wrong, per se. Advertising can be driven by all of these things, but ideally considers everything at once, within the context of a conversation.

“Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer." — Shirley Polykoff

Shirley Polykoff, who was the first woman copywriter for Foote, Cone & Belding, called it right in the 1950s and she is still right today. She based her career on it, with Clairol being her biggest success.

Did her advertisements sell too? Yes. She moved the hair color category from $25 million to $200 million. Did her advertisements persuade? Yes. She expanded the market from 7 percent of all women to 50 percent of all women in six years. Did she help the Clairol brand? Yes. It captured 50 percent of the market share, making it the clear leader in cosmetics for decades. She also told a story that sparked conversations, originally among housewives who wanted more glamour and independence.

Advertising was (and still is) a conversation, one that presents the possibilities. 

What some people squabble about today is what form that conversation should take, with most people leaning toward content marketing as a means to deliver it. I agree to a degree, meaning that I agree content marketing is where many people will set their sights. But I also temper the conclusion because if Polykoff wasn't engaged in content marketing, then what was she engaged in? Exactly.

Advertising isn't moving forward, it's moving backward with a few bright bulbs positioning themselves as the frontrunners of an old idea, repackaged. There is nothing really wrong with that. The circular nature of culture demands a certain degree repetition. And I can't fault people for claiming it's new.

But what I can do is help even smarter people understand why we moved away from conversation in the first place. Mostly, it had to do with the rapid advancements in visual communication — special effects and unrestrained cleverness — that became the conversation and made the brand promise and product possibilities secondary to the packaging.

The only problem with that stylish but less substantive trend, of course, was that social media amplified buyer's remorse by giving it a potential reach that could eclipse a media buy. Ergo, if a story leads someone to a conclusion that differs from the one they expect, then they tend to get pissed off.

Content marketing merely rolls the story telling back where it belongs. In today's world, Polykoff would still be revered a shining star in advertising because the content would remain the same while taking advantage of a better delivery system. Blondes, as her advertisements suggested, would still have more fun.

The only difference is that in today's communication environment, she could have had a platform to tell their stories along with the one that sparked their imaginations in the first place. Does that make sense?

Advertising is an invitation to consider an imaginary spark that allows people to explore the possibilities of something better, ideally defined as the product or service that can deliver it. Whether that means visual, audio, copy, online, offline,  or any combination is merely a matter of what best showcases the product (in the medium it is being presented in) and budgetary constraint. And everything else?

You are probably better suited to fill in the blank, especially as you review any campaigns this year.
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