As the US advertising legend Bill Bernbach famously said, “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth”. And never has this been more prevalent than it is now. No smoke and mirrors, no clever gimmicks, no skirting around the truth. Today’s audience want clarity and they want facts.
Advertising has gone through successive change over the years, having to adapt to suit new mediums and audiences. The first type of mainstream advertising was the construction of billboards in towns back in 1835. This was followed by more direct forms of advertising with postcards sent to target customers. This tactic was popular until the early 1900’s when advertising evolved again through paid for slots on radio and television.
Advertising has now taken another huge leap forward through the adoption of the internet and companies are now able to target audiences through a number of multi-faceted approaches - banners, pop-ups, social media, video, the list goes on. But perhaps the most significant thing about the evolution of advertising is that it has become much more personal. Companies are now able to tailor and tweak their ads to target very specific audiences which means that the message has become far more direct.
Back in the early 1900’s companies used elaborate characters to tell stories and promote the products to establish connections between viewers and brands. Just look at what Tony the Tiger has done for Kellogg’s Frosties. But today’s audiences are smarter, wiser and not at all fooled by any extravagant gimmicks.
Today’s audiences want something that is relatable, and they don’t want a hard sell. Companies have recognised this and responded accordingly and we’ve since seen some pretty powerful global advertising campaigns which are successfully highlighting some pretty hard-hitting issues. They aren’t selling a product – they’re addressing global problems and for this they are gaining significant credibility.
Take the recent Dove campaign, which set out to challenge the portrayal of women through advertising and its ‘Campaign for real beauty’. According to Dove, the idea of a beauty product featuring realistic women had been bandied around in advertising for many years, but no-one was brave enough to break the convention. So they ran a poster campaign showing women of all shapes, sizes and colours and even included a trans mum in its #RealMums motherhood campaign. The adverts rewarded Dove with a 700% increase in sales, but more importantly, it’s given them significant credibility by creating a message that everyone can relate to.
But Dove hasn’t always managed to get it right. At the end of 2017 the brand came under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons when a Facebook advert depicting a black woman turning into a white woman ‘missed the mark’ and created a global social media storm to boycott all Dove products. While the idea behind the advert had the best intentions, the way it was perceived was significantly different leaving them needing to make a very serious and public apology.
Another significant breakthrough for advertising has been the increased portrayal of LGBT+ rights and over the last few years we have seen far greater use of this. Take the Lloyds Bank advert which prominently featured a same-sex couple’s marriage proposal in a TV advert.
Gillette are also winning supporters all over the world with their recently launched ad showing a father helping his transgender son to shave. The shaving company came under fire last year after it launched an advertising campaign inspired by the #MeToo movement which aimed to promote positive masculinity. It now seems to have been able to turn this around with its new campaign which also uses a real-life father and son. ‘Keeping it real’ has never been so key. For far too long this was a community which was seriously misrepresented in the media and adverts like this and many more show us how far we have come as brands recognise the need to keep up with and reflect social change.
But although we have come a really long way, there are still occasions where adverts have to be pulled following complaints. The Advertising Standards Association (ASA) have spent the last few years working hard to put a range of measures in place which help tackle under-representation after Ofcom found that Women, ethnic minorities and disabled people were all still under-represented.
In another positive step forward, ASA announced earlier this year that it would be banning any adverts that contained ‘harmful gender stereotypes’ or those which are likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’. The new rules cover broadcast and non-broadcast adverts which includes any used online or on social media.
ASA takes its responsibilities to help diminish any gender stereotypes extremely seriously and the advertising industry has stood up and recognised this. Advertising is a seriously powerful tool. Any advertising campaign needs to be extremely well planned and executed considering the audience, the context and any negative connotations that could come from it. But it also has the power to encourage, persuade, educate and most importantly, to inspire. The brands that are smart enough to recognise their role will reap the rewards.