Truth, Lies and Advertising 20 years later.

By Carla Garcia, Junior Brand Planner

In the fall of 2016, when I began my career at C-K as a Brand Planning intern, I was given a copy of Jon Steel’s “Truth, Lies, and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning.” I tore through it, eager to learn all I could about the new field in which I’d found myself.

In early 2017, I asked a friend at a different agency for reading recommendations, and he named the same book.

Then, a few months ago, a relative with a lifelong career in advertising suggested I check out – you guessed it – “Truth, Lies, and Advertising.”

This buzz may be surprising when you consider the book’s publication date: March 13, 1998. Clearly, the world has changed a lot since then. Yet after nearly two decades, Steel’s work remains a staple on must-read lists for not only planners, but also everyone else in the industry.

A month into the new year, and just shy of the book’s 20th anniversary, the time seems ripe to revisit its pages and consider how its lessons for creating smart, effective work still hold true.

The power of perspective

“In most fields of human endeavor, the chances of finding a solution or uncovering the truth are increased as more perspectives are taken into account” (p. 2).

Throughout the book, Steel argues for the need to incorporate various perspectives into the advertising process from start to finish. This point continues to be relevant as our industry continues to suffer from a lack of diversity. Consumers today have less and less patience for brands who fail to read the room – just look at the backlash against the now-infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad and, even more recently, Dodge’s use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in its Super Bowl 2018 commercial. Having as many different people reading the room as possible can only serve us well.

Speaking of reading, Steel makes a case for planners to seek out as wide a range of books, media and other activities as possible (and not just advertising-related ones), as well as develop relationships with a diverse range of people. This can help avoid the echo chambers that lead us down the path of thinking that everyone else must be doing and feeling the same things we are, and failing to grasp why they aren’t.

Asking the right questions

“In many instances the right questions are not asked – maybe out of laziness, or lack of thought, or force of habit – and as a result the research goes off in the wrong direction, leaving behind both the consumers it was meant to represent and the truths that they could have revealed” (p. 60).

Steel spends several chapters discussing the pitfalls that occur when research is done wrong. It can be any number of things – asking too many questions, asking too few, asking questions in the wrong environment – and the opportunity for missteps is exponentially greater as new research platforms allow us to instantly disseminate surveys to thousands of people and conduct focus groups from the comfort of our own smartphones. When these results are then allowed to drive decisions, and intuition and experience are left on the back burner, it can be the kiss of death for interesting, insightful work.

However, the new technologies at our disposal also mean there is exponentially greater opportunity for our research to truly tap into consumer opinions. We need to think outside the box with our questions instead of relying solely on the tried and (previously) true. Hey, maybe throwing in some emojis will help.

Consumers are people, too

“The scientific method of advertising puts consumers into neat little compartments where they can be targeted: nonusers, occasional users, heavy users, believers, nonbelievers, household income below $25,000…” (p. 19).

There’s probably no term that marketers are sicker of today than ‘millennials,’ and ‘Gen Z’ is probably next. The industry loves its clear-cut targets – they’re a reprieve from the sea of data we now find ourselves drowning in – but Steel cautions against this “scientific method of advertising” that sees drastic oversimplification of consumers. Let’s face it: not every 18- to 34-year-old is a La Croix-sipping, avocado toast-eating experience lover, and we need to stop thinking that way.

Steel also reminds us that consumers’ lives don’t revolve around the products we’re trying to sell; they have interests and problems inside and outside of the categories in which we play. The brands who win are the ones who really listen to consumers (from different perspectives, with the right questions) and figure out how they want brands to fit into their lives. The brands who win are the ones who make friends.

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