The fine print: Impactful versus misleading advertising

Brands essentially should struggle to be bought-into, not just bought

N Chandramouli
Updated: Mar 15, 2019 11:44:56 AM UTC
Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

While these two terms, 'impactful' and 'misleading', may seem to have diametrically opposite effects on the consumer, it may surprise many that these words have a much closer relationship. If we were to consider the meanings of the two terms as follows; impactful – as having a major impact or effect; and misleading – to deceive and hoodwink, in terms of advertising, they will be seen as siblings if you will, and a deceitful duo at that.

In fact, the very reason misleading advertising is misleading, and quite consciously at that, is because it is so impactful. Most humans, and by extension consumers, operate on an intrinsic presumption of trust in society, institutions and organisations that society creates. Trust, being a social glue, brings stability to the individual in societal relationships, as it is a necessary ingredient for normal social exchanges and requirements. Trust also builds an individual’s self-esteem and ‘belongingness quotient’ and is based upon on a simple rule-based structure that each individual self-creates over time and experiences.

Brands that have sufficient stature or size tend to get believed more. Certain categories, such as car or bank brands, may also intrinsically be more trusted. The trust-bond is usually upheld by the consumer, unless it is repeatedly or blatantly eroded by a brand’s actions in a way that is inconsistent with the consumer beliefs. Strangely therefore, the bigger the brand with the misleading statement, the more believable it is to the readily accepting consumer. It is no wonder then, that brands universally inflate claims, present false and dubious research findings, hide essential information (in that universally found unreadable small font), among a litany of other transgressions.

People have been misled through communications through millennia, and it takes the exalted state of an art-form in communications. Classical propaganda techniques--the ‘science’ of creating undue influence based on persuasion techniques--have had tomes written on them. Many of these, used extensively in advertising, are spoken only in hushed tones in advertising circles for obvious reasons. The deviousness of these techniques and the underlying impact on the consumer can be both extremely serious and damaging. A consumer’s awareness of these methods will be an important first step to the realisation of how they are being persuaded and goaded to take inadvertent decisions.

Some of these techniques include Assertion (claims of superlatives like ‘best’, ‘shiniest’); Cardstacking (selective omission); Glittering Generalities (linked to highly valued social concepts like peace, democracy, freedom, glory and so on) and Lesser-of-Two-Evils (linguistically detoxified concepts like clean-fuel, organic cigarettes, energy-saving electronics). Some other propaganda techniques such as Pinpointing-the-Enemy are effectively used in election campaigns, which are fought on a single point agenda, like ‘Eradication of Poverty’ to point out the ‘common’ enemy, seeking voter allegiance. The technique of Simplification is when advertising tells mothers that are making the ‘Smart Choice’ by choosing a cereal for their child, or the detergent for their washing machine.

Of the most innocuously camouflaged persuasion techniques is Transfer, because of its silent impact on the consumers. The brand is used with surroundings, ambience and positive image trappings that ‘transfer’ their characteristics to the main brand being advertised for. If an imagery of an eco-friendly car is to be created, birds chirping sweetly on the car hood may help the consumer accept its ‘green’ tag more readily.

Unfortunately, the brand measurement metric in the corporate world is focused singularly on sales. It’s only natural that brands try to achieve this end goal by any means. With advertising often testing the edge of law, the mad frenzy to acquire more consumers at any cost actually goes against the very strain of how a brand should be communicating.

Brands essentially should struggle to be bought-into, not just bought. The true and only metric that a brand should be measured by is by the consumer’s keenness-to-buy the brand, its inherent Buying Propensity. Buying Propensity, the amalgamation of brand’s trust and its’ innate desire held by the consumers, a growing modern brand metric is often quite opposite to a sales-led approach. And, unless brands shake off their ‘sales’ brand metric to buying propensity, the readily accepting consumers will continue to get deceived, misled and hoodwinked.

Brands hide behind the legal concept called Caveat Emptor–‘let the buyer beware’. As the words spell out, the primary responsibility of not getting misled is with the consumer himself. The consumer must take Caveat Emptor more seriously, and must be more communication conscious having deeper involvement in each brand purchase, questioning claims made by brands. An equally important responsibility is that of government, which must have stricter legal repercussions for misleading advertising. Advertising agencies, much like Chartered Accountants when signing off balance sheets, could be made more accountable for the brand claims made, signing off to the trueness of the claims.

The consequent result of these three actions will change the onus of responsibility to brands, making them more self-compliant, helping building back trust of the consumer in these important societal pillars.

The author is a CEO of TRA Research.

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