Improving Performance: Getting real returns from your advertising dollars

Are you ready for this? I’m not making this up. If you turn to page 136 of the November 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine, you’ll see an article by Rob Walker called “Creative Mischief.” In it, he quotes Sam Ewen, a non-traditional marketer, as saying, “I believe the new killer app in advertising is honesty.”

Hallelujah! Isn’t it about time?

In college, I learned the purpose of advertising was to “inform” potential customers. It was also acceptable to gently persuade them by highlighting features and benefits. But nowhere did they ever suggest stretching the truth. In fact, they strongly discouraged anything that might be misleading as something that would certainly backfire in the long run. Once a company loses its credibility, what else did it have?

Now, I hate to admit how many years later, I can hardly remember that advertising was once supposed to be an honest game. Have you noticed that as the price of gasoline skyrocketed, many cars suddenly became “fuel-efficient?”

I was amazed. It seemed it took no time for engineering and the resulting design changes. Somehow the existing inventories magically became fuel efficient as well.

If you watch the evening news, aren’t you amazed at all the miracle drugs advertised? “Ask your doctor!” Don’t they make you feel like calling your doctor and asking for a prescription, even though you don’t have any symptoms? Do you ever find yourself wishing you had the disease or the ailment so you could “enjoy” the medication or the treatment? In fact, don’t they make you feel like there’s something wrong if you don’t have it?

For instance, can there be a single male in America who doesn’t wonder if he suffers from erectile dysfunction? That’s something many of us had never even heard of just a few years ago. Could our ancestors have ever satisfied their women without those drugs? Just how did the human race ever procreate through so many millennia?

And here we are at the end of another election season, which unfortunately only means the beginning of the next one. I can’t imagine any commercial venture that has misused advertising quite as much as political campaigns. I have seen ads claiming they never did things I specifically remember them doing. I have also seen ads claiming things they never did or dramatically exaggerating what they did. For instance, “creating 50,000 jobs” – why mention job losses or that the new jobs are not the kind with which you could support a family?

How can we believe any of it? Once we find a lie, we tend not to believe the rest, even if it’s true. Don’t you find it more than a little ironic that politicians use lies, misrepresentations and half-truths to try to talk us into trusting them with our votes?

At the risk of endangering my own credibility, I will say I know an honest politician. Even so, who can believe him? The lies are so prevalent, we don’t believe anyone, and that’s the point. Lying just destroys the effectiveness of the medium for everyone. So why do we allow it?

I used to belong to a national speakers’ organization. When they became enamored of marketing tricks, I quickly lost interest. For example, letters of appreciation from former clients can be effective marketing tools. I have quite a few and have never requested one. The speakers’ group actually encouraged us to write our own and ask clients to sign them and put them on their stationery. All that did was make legitimate letters like mine essentially worthless.

Just think of how much better invested your advertising dollars would be if people wanted to see and/or hear your ads as well as believe them instead of shunning or avoiding them.

Even if your industry operates in the swampy quagmire of mistruth and half-truths, take the high road. At first, your truth may not be any more believable than the lies, but persistent truth has a way of being recognized and winning in the end. Once you build that reputation, never deviate from it. If you already have such a reputation, guard it carefully — it’s worth a lot.

Under-promise and over-deliver. The objective isn’t just to get them to buy; you want them to be satisfied or even delighted when they do. If they buy and are disappointed, they won’t come back, and they just might tell their friends. You’ll never be able to get enough advertising dollars to overcome that.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; fax 603-894-6539;;