Get Out Of The Sizzle Business

In the second half of his article on change in the ad industry, Tom Wnek explains how brands came to adopt unrealistic emotional values and how ad agencies can help them…

In last month’s article, I introduced the concept of “emotional dissonance”. For various reasons – beyond the control of advertisers and their agencies – many popular brands had come to adopt increasingly unrealistic emotional values. These help to promote irresponsible consumption and, at the same time, prevent the market from adapting to changing consumer needs. As promised, I now want to focus on what we in the advertising industry can do about this.

In order to do so, we need to look at one other factor behind the growth of emotional dissonance: the advent of the account planner.


The Tin Man and the Scarecrow
Looking back on it, the creation of advertising before planning arrived on the scene seems like a laughably amateurish affair. Account handlers would write the brief and feed it into the black box of the creative department, from which a campaign would eventually emerge for them to pitch to the client. Sometimes the work that resulted was memorable and effective at selling; sometimes it was neither of these things, such was the mystery of the creative process. You can see why marketing departments might have hankered after something a bit more scientific, not to mention a semblance of accountability and control.

This was the gap the planner was destined to fill by devising strategies based on identifiable consumer insights; by writing briefs that directed the creative team towards fruitful terrain based on these insights, and by developing tools to measure consumers’ reactions to the advertising that resulted, before significant costs were incurred.

In short, planners spoke the client’s language, so, not unnaturally, clients increasingly listened to what they had to say.

While this undoubtedly increased effectiveness, it also meant no single governing intelligence was any longer responsible. Clients provided the gun, planners aimed it, and creative teams pulled the trigger. Always a potentially dangerous state of affairs, as Professor Paul Seabright, author of The Company of Strangers, observed: “…even some of the simplest activities of modern society… function without anyone being in overall charge. On the contrary, they work through eliciting a single-mindedness from their participants – a tunnel vision – that is hardly compatible with a clear and nonpartisan vision of the priorities of society as a whole.”

The single-mindedness, or tunnel vision, that can result from increased specialisation is marvellous for productivity, but it can all too easily lead to businesses conforming to what the economist John Kay calls “internally-generated values” which may not be the same as society’s values. Emotional dissonance is an example of just such a disparity. To the advertiser, the growth in sales of his cars or cheeseburgers is a cause for unmitigated satisfaction, for society as a whole it may be less so.

In retrospect it’s clear that the uncoupling of the responsibility for the emotional tenor of a piece of advertising, from the job of actually creating it, contributed to the evolution of emotionally dissonant brands. For once, the evolutionary metaphor is appropriate. Planners operated like blind watchmakers – diligently registering each change in the audience’s reaction to a piece of communication. Because of the generic benefits of emotion in mass marketing discussed last month, this effectively meant plotting a course towards increasingly emotive advertisements, regardless of the suitability of the product to this kind of treatment. I was recently given a brief, for example, which sought to evoke the “powerful emotional connection” the planner had discovered existed between the target audience and a particular brand of kitchen towel.

As a result of this increased specialisation, the nature of the creative task changed. Creative teams were encouraged to be less intellectually curious; to emote first and ask questions, well, never.  Planners, in contrast, had to suspend their emotional judgement in order to rationalise the increasingly preposterous “powerful emotional connections” research proved existed between householder and absorbent paper towel. In time, I think it’s also fair to say, the personalities of these two groups changed to reflect the nature of their assigned tasks. The discourse between the two departments eventually resembled a conversation between the Tin Man and the Scarecrow: one all head and no heart; the other all feeling and no brains – no wonder it could result in the hymns to junk food and gas-guzzling 4x4s, and all the other emotionally dissonant advertising that assails us every day.


Trading Out Of Trouble
We now have the complete picture of how brands came to adopt increasingly disingenuous emotional values, and the problems we’re likely to face in trying to correct this. Leaving aside practical concerns for a moment, there are three ways this could be done in theory.

Existing brands could begin to be advertised in ways that gradually conceded some emotional ground, ie brand values could be tempered to make them more consonant with product reality.

FIG 1.  Top Down Emotional Consonance  –  Bringing Values Into Line with Existing Benefits.

Examples of this debunking style of advertising are pretty rare.  They include the “Does Exactly What it Says on the Tin” campaign for Ronseal, and John Smith’s long-running “No Nonsense” work in the UK. The Great Pretender commercial for VW Golf is a current example.

This strategy is only really relevant for challenger brands, because it can be in their short-term interests to encourage customers to make more rational comparative assessments. Quite unwittingly, something similar to this happened in the mid-80s in the cola market. Pepsi, faced with a declining market-share, issued its famous taste challenge. In blind tests most people preferred Pepsi to Coke, and its fortunes duly improved. By reducing their historic brand rivalry to such a brutally simple comparison however, Pepsi introduced a fatal note of rationality into the market. This could have been exploited by other entrants, without the need for costly emotionally dissonant advertising. If Pepsi tastes better than Coke, perhaps Virgin Cola tastes better than Pepsi, or sufficiently alike to be better value? And come to think of it, supermarket cola doesn’t taste all that different at half the price. Suddenly consumers had a mechanism to gauge the relative utility of the two brands with potentially disastrous consequences not just for Coke, but for Pepsi too, in the long run. In spite of its initial success, the taste challenge was summarily dropped.

Another obvious way values and properties can be brought back into line is by changing the product to more accurately reflect the existing brand promise.

FIG 2.  Bottom Up Emotional Consonance – Benefits Brought Into Line with Existing Values.

This type of “bottom up” emotional consonance is more common. It can be seen in the form of a whole variety of more nutritional variants, and new recipes in the case of processed foods, and hybrid and bio-fuel technology in the car industry. However, advertisers are compromised in developing these healthier and more sustainable sub-brands and technologies, by the more pressing and profitable need to simultaneously promote their mainstream parent brands. Which is perhaps why you can detect the coyness with which advertisers allude to the benefits of their more ethical sub-brands, out of fear of positioning their parent brands as implicitly unethical, unfair or unsustainable.

The third way in which markets as a whole might be made more emotionally consonant is through migration to new brands.

In recent years a number of emotionally consonant brands have been launched, seeking to capitalise on an increased appetite for goods and services that can demonstrate a healthier, more sustainable or ethical dimension. The fair trade movement is a prime example of manufacturers capitalising upon a burgeoning consciousness among consumers of the wider implications of their purchasing decisions.

FIG 3.  Emotional Consonance via Migration to New Brands.

Yet for all the good will that exists in the UK towards the ethical sector (surveys regularly show that upwards of 80% of consumers would take sustainability and environmental impact into account when making their purchases) it still only accounts for about 4% of retail sales, and we lead the world in this area. And of course when attitudes run ahead of behaviour in this way, these are precisely the conditions in which marketing can make a difference.

Which brings me to the final obstacle standing in the way of a return to a more emotionally consonant marketplace. Were it not so profitably implicated in the status quo, the marketing industry itself could do a lot more to limit the consequences of over-consumption in the traditional sector, and to promote growth in the ethical and sustainable sectors.

At a time when advertising is under threat from the fragmentation of media, personal video recorders and a whole variety of experiential marketing techniques, sustaining the big blue-chip emotionally dissonant brands is more crucial to agency profitability than ever before.


A Line in the Sand
The most realistic hope for progress resides outside the existing agency networks and traditional manufacturing, in new entrepreneurs and new emotionally consonant brands working with a new breed of agency, not dependent on unsustainable revenue streams, and uninhibited by association with emotionally dissonant brands.

The opportunities for anyone wishing to work in this way are growing all the time. The rewards – in personal terms, at least, are equally great. Let’s briefly consider what such an agency would look like, how it would operate, and what sort of work might result (see panel) by taking our own company – A Line In The Sand – as an example.

The key difference in our approach is that before writing a conventional brief, we conduct what we call an Emotional Brand Audit (EBA). This takes the form of a workshop using a variety of techniques, even including improvisational theatre in which actors play the part of the brand and interact with consumers. At moments when the drama “plays” we identify and then home in on emotional values the product can legitimately and engagingly acquire.

The EBA forms the basis of all creative work and, because it is rooted in a discernible and useful emotional truth, it can wholeheartedly connect with public concerns about poor nutrition, environmental degradation, even social disorder. This enables us to forge deeper and stronger links with our customers, resulting in a more enduring, reciprocal and authentic form of brand loyalty; the kind of mutually respectful brand/consumer relationship we identify as the future of successful marketing enterprises. This is the hopeful vision of the future I want to leave you with.

The moment is surely passing when marketing professionals can reasonably claim to be unaware of the consequences of their activities, or the nature of the relationship between emotional dissonance and obesity, over-consumption or environmental degeneration. We need to draw a line in the sand now, acknowledge our part in the problem, so that we can become part of the solution.

Should we fail to grasp this opportunity however, not only will advertising continue to eat itself as consumers reject our increasingly hysterical claims in ever larger numbers, but the beginning of the twenty-first century will be remembered as a black period, and the marketing industry’s role in it especially reviled. Just as the exploitation of children for labour and the denial through necessity of access to education are viewed with abhorrence today, so future societies will look back at the exploitation of children for their custom, and the subsequent denial through conditioning of access to opportunity and good health, as simply a more refined form of oppression.


This article is taken from How Did We Get To Be The Bad Guys?, available from Tom Wnek and Barry Brand are founding creative partners of Line In The Sand Ltd., an ad agency dedicated to building brands that encourage better nutrition and environmental regeneration. Contact



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