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Why Johnny Won't Buy Your Ad

  |  September 24, 2008   |  Comments

How the social Web enforces truth in advertising.

With online conversations increasingly impacting consumer decisions, it's ironic that many top-notch marketers still advertise in ways that ignore this. In this column, I'm focusing on the "fine print" -- in particular those notices and disclaimers that go well beyond clarifying the conditions of an otherwise reasonable offer. I'm talking about the ones that effectively say, "Actually, forget whatever it was you thought we said. None of that actually applies to you."

Lack of transparency represents the number-one marketing offense on the social Web. This often manifests itself as a failure to disclose a vested interest in a conversation. Marketers are as welcome as anyone else to join in conversations. But failing to point out relationships that may not be obvious, and that may influence the comments themselves, is not OK.

It's the same in non-social forms of advertising. The analogous rules that apply to these channels are summed up in "truth in advertising," which largely explains the fine print that appears in association with many ads. Trouble is, more often than not the fine print goes beyond clarifying the terms or conditions that apply. It actually changes the offer. If revealed earlier, most consumers would have stopped reading right there.

The larger issue --and particularly relevant to online marketing and social media -- is the pattern that's emerging. Truth in advertising and its fine print -- originally well intentioned -- has become a way to put captivating headlines in front of consumers without actually having to deliver on the expectation. The use of social media is often undertaken without an explicit disclosure plan, something I've talked about in the past. This past August, "Ad Age" reported on a survey of marketing chiefs and senior managers: "More than half (53%) said the marketing industry as a whole is not following ethical guidelines in the new-media realm."

All of this now rolls onto the social Web, a place where consumers can and do call out the differences between expectation and delivery, between the primary claims in an ad and the actual terms and conditions detailed in the fine print. Case in point: As I was looking through "The Atlantic, " I saw an ad for the new Nissan Murano. Attractive styling, comfortable and functional interior. In big bold letters: "Starts at $26,000." At a time when consumers are increasingly value-oriented, this seemed like a great vehicle.

Unfortunately, about an inch away, in the fine print, came the deal killer: "As shown, just over $40,000." There is a big difference between $26,000 and $40,000. The ad, including the fine print, effectively says, "Don't believe everything we tell you." What impact do you suppose that has on a customer considering things like the integrity of the dealership when it comes to warranty support and the general post-purchase experience? "Don't believe what we tell you" is what the ad suggests. I'd suggest that isn't going to sell cars.

On the social Web, consumer have tools of their own. First, they have social sites like nissanmurano.org, a place where Murano enthusiasts post tips on things like the installation of hardwired radar detectors, share photos of their Muranos in cool places, and in general talk about their vehicles. These, too, are channels where the next wave of Murano buyers are influenced. Unlike the mainstream ads, they don't seem to require the same use of fine print. Not surprisingly, trust in word of mouth (which certainly includes these types of social media) is significantly higher than for the messages contained in traditional media.

Beyond the enthusiast communities, there are sites like MousePrint.org, which I learned about through Digg, that analyze the fine print and post the most offensive examples. Unilever, maker of Skippy peanut butter, was recently caught out. The company reduced the net weight in its smaller jars of regular peanut butter from18 ounces to 16 ounces. Companies do all sorts of things for reasons that are their own business. No issue there. But in this case, it decreased the volume of the jar by raising the hidden indentation on the bottom of the jar so that the jar itself appeared to be the same size as the older 18-ounce jar. This is important when a value-seeking mom scans the shelf and sees the new 16-ounce Skippy jar next to Jif, which still contains 18 ounces of peanut butter. (Personal disclosure: Jif is and always has been my favorite among regular peanut butters.)

Consider the response from Unilever when questioned about the reduced weight by MousePrint (you can read the entire response at MousePrint):

    Unilever has always taken great pride in offering the highest quality products at reasonable and fair prices. Food inflation is only one element of a general rise in commodity costs - such as oil prices...We have chosen to reduce package sizes as one of our responses to these dramatic input cost increases."

How does reducing the amount of peanut butter in the jar do anything to help control price inflation? If anything it contributes to it because the fixed cost of the jar is now spread (no pun intended) over a reduced sold amount of product. The impact of oil prices and the cost of diesel -- a big element of delivery costs to the retailer -- are similarly exacerbated by spreading that same fixed cost over a smaller amount of product delivered. In simplest terms, it means that Mom has to make more trips to the store (using her own fuel) to buy more jars since these smaller containers are going to run out faster. How does that help consumers? It doesn't.

Just like the "as shown, a lot more expensive than what we mentioned earlier" in the Murano ad, the size change and response from Unilever are simply discarded as disingenuous marketing-speak. Unilever should have just come out and said, "We had a choice between raising prices or reducing quantity. We chose to reduce quantity and keep costs level for our customers who prefer smaller jars. For consumers seeking value, we have always suggested that they consider our larger containers." Doesn't that seem to be simultaneously more useful and closer to the truth? This is, of course, not lost on the makers of Jif. It's since relabeled its 18-ounce jars to highlight the fact that it still contains 18 ounces of peanut butter.

The bottom line is this: on the social Web, smart people are looking for tips, tricks, traps, charades, and similar. They collect, analyze, and share this information for the benefit of other consumers. Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the Web, said it best at his 1995 keynote:

    I had (and still have) a dream that the web could be less of a television channel and more of an interactive sea of shared knowledge. I imagine it immersing us as a warm, friendly environment made of the things we and our friends have seen, heard, believe, or have figured out. I would like it to bring our friends and colleagues closer, in that by working on this knowledge together we can come to better understandings.

There you have it: the social Web (along with truth in advertising) demystified: "By working on this knowledge together we can come to better understandings." Pretty simple and quite powerful. Consider adopting this kind of approach in your marketing campaigns, social or otherwise. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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