Confession as Ad Execution Strategy

Confession is good for the soul; it lifts a burden from us when we acknowledge shortcomings or mistakes. Acknowledging a problem is the first step toward fixing it. This process of introspection and improvement applies to businesses, too. However, a major difference between businesses and individuals when it comes to acknowledging mistakes is we do not usually feel compelled to share our admissions of guilt with the whole world. Increasingly, businesses are making the choice to go beyond admitting mistakes and featuring them in advertising campaigns.

Domino’s Pizza brought attention to the tactic of confession as an advertising execution strategy in 2010. The company acknowledged that many pizza eaters did not like the taste of Domino’s, and it responded by taking steps to reformulate the product. To drive home the point that it recognized customers had come to dislike the product, commercials featured the “new and improved” pizza being delivered to homes of people who had complained about Domino’s product quality. The camp was an innovative way to say “ know we messed up.” Moreover, Domino’s demonstrated responsiveness to consumers as the complaints served as a catalyst for change.

Fast forward a year and a half and we find another restaurant brand employing the same strategy as it seeks to return to glory. Shoney’s had more than 1,600 locations in its heyday, but it is a shadow of its former self with only 230 locations today. The architect of the plan to turnaround Shoney’s is CEO David Davoudpour, who bought the company in 2009. Shoney’s has launched a “Starting Fresh” ad campaign that includes a commercial in which Davoudpour is driving a bulldozer directly toward one of his restaurants. Another commercial shows a “kidnapping” of the executive chef hired by Shoney’s to improve the menu. The admission is not as strong as that made by Domino’s, but the takeaway from the Shoney’s ad campaign is “it is broken, but we plan to fix it.”

So, is confession not only good for the soul but effective for persuading customers about the quality reputation of your brand, too? Admitting failure is admirable, as is going to the lengths of communicating it in an expensive ad campaign. But saying “we were wrong” must be followed with tangible evidence of what has been done to right the wrong. If the aim of “confession advertising” is to change people’s beliefs about a brand, then there must be evidence of verifiable change. A slogan of “we’re trying harder” will not do! – “New Shoney’s Ad Campaign Concedes Failures”

Keeping It Real in Advertising Creative

When it comes to selecting a message source to deliver an advertising message, there are compelling reasons to consider using animated characters instead of real people. An animated spokesperson will not be difficult to deal with in contract negotiations, will not get arrested or do anything to embarrass a brand, and it will not turn off audiences with annoying behaviors or mannerisms. These traits of animated spokespersons, coupled with their increased presence in ads, seem to make the decision to use animation instead of live action an easy one to make.

But, before you replace people with characters, check out a recent Nielsen study of the impact of animation on consumer response to ads. A comparison of animated versus live action executions found that brand recall was 22% higher for ads using live action. Further comparisons across demographic groups found that the difference in brand recall for live action ads was higher for women (+27%) than for men (+17%) and that consumers aged 35-49 had higher recall of live action ads (+24%) than 13-35 year-olds (+11%). While overall results suggest the impact of live action ads is greater, one exception was that animation execution had 28% higher brand recall for ads for food ingredients and seasoning.

Results of the Nielsen study beg the question “why?” The answer may not be all that complicated. Consumers connect with brands with which they perceive similarity and thus can be influenced by evidence that a brand is “like me.” Which creative execution can get that point across more effectively? Using real people, of course. Granted, we are not always going to identify with characters in ads (there are many characters that we do not want to identify with!). However, for ads using a problem-solution scenario or that attempt to resonate with consumers on an emotional level, having real people as the message source seems to get through to consumers more effectively than animated characters.

Center for Media Research – “Animation or Actors”

Put Down Your Product to Attract Customers

No, the headline does not have a typo. Putting down your product can be a way to position your brand to attract new users. It is possible that customers think your product is too good for them, so changing its frame of reference to something bad, decadent, or unhealthy may resonate with some people.

Is this an unusual recommendation? I think so, and I am holding back laughter and skepticism as I gather these thoughts. Here is an example of what I mean, coming from a group called “A Bunch of Carrot Farmers.” In a campaign that launches Monday, baby carrots are positioned as an alternative to junk food, even bearing the tag line “eat ‘em like junk food.” An integrated campaign will use advertising, social media, and a website ( to spread the word. Even product packaging gets into the campaign as baby carrot packages resembling potato chip bags will appear in stores.

This campaign is a great illustration of using marketing communications to influence consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Associating baby carrots with the indulgence of eating junk food challenges consumers to rethink how they perceive carrots as a snack. The messaging that has been developed for the campaign to this point is humorous and light hearted. Rather than a focus on “eat carrots because they are good for you,” the implied message is “eat carrots because they are fun!”

Will consumers be attracted to baby carrots because they are fun (not to mention better for you than junk food)? It is certainly an unexpected positioning, but one that might work on a product that is viewed as a commodity by many consumers. Shifting focus from a more virtuous “good for you” product to a more playful treat is a put down that could result in higher sales of baby carrots.

DM News – “Baby Carrot Growers Target Snackers with Integrated Effort”

The Digital Billboard Divide

Digital billboards have gained quite a bit of attention, literally and otherwise. The sharp images that change every 5-10 seconds allow outdoor advertisers to keep fresh messages in front of travelers. The novelty of digital billboards and the frequently changing images attract the eyes of drivers. The attention grabbing capability of billboards may be a plus for marketers, but it is a cause of concern for some local governments and advocacy groups. Digital billboard placement has been banned or limited in several markets across the country.

The debate about digital billboards is two-fold. One issue is rooted in aesthetics; some groups simply do not want the landscape dotted with flashy signs. The other issue is a more serious matter concerning the safety impact- are drivers more likely to be distracted if exposed to digital billboards compared to static billboards and all of the other stimuli that can get take our attention away from the road? The answer to this question is “it depends.” It depends on who you ask. Multiple studies conducted on behalf of the outdoor advertising industry have found no correlation between the presence of digital billboards and an increase in traffic accidents. Government sponsored research has been less conclusive, and others simply fan the debate with positions without objective evidence such as a St. Louis alderman who said “digital billboards are a distraction” as he pushed for the city to halt digital billboard placements.

It is possible that the real concern about digital billboards is that they will lead to further encroachment of commercialization into our lives. The safety argument is a convenient cloak to make a rational case for why they should be prohibited. Compelling arguments are made on both sides of the issue. The quality of digital billboards exceeds previous generations of signs, and certain situations may arise in which digital billboards can serve the public good such as posting information about a missing child. The debate will continue, but the question that must be answered to resolve this issue is whether the benefits of digital billboards outweigh any risks or problems they might create… if there are any risks or problems at all.

USA Today – “More Cities Ban Digital Billboards”
OAAA – “Engineer: Digital Billboards not Linked to Accidents”

Consumer Response to Celebrity Endorser Scandals: Yawn

Celebrity endorsers can be an effective promotion strategy to gain awareness and shape image. Pairing a brand with a well known or likable celebrity can elevate a brand, but what happens if the endorser runs into personal troubles (did anyone say Tiger Woods)? Marketers fear that the positive effects an endorser provides can be negated and harm done to the brand if the endorser receives publicity for problems or scandal. As a result, a standard part of endorser marketing agreements is some type of morals clause, which gives the company that hired the endorser an exit from the relationship. This response was seen in the Tiger Woods case as partners like Accenture and Gatorade made moves to distance themselves from Tiger.

Is it possible that marketers overreact when quickly disassociating themselves with a troubled endorser? The answer may be “yes” according to a study by Harris Interactive (for more info click here). A survey of more than 2,000 adults found that 74% felt no differently about a brand that employed a celebrity enmeshed in scandal. Approximately 22% said they feel worse about brands associated with a celebrity involved in scandal, and 5% said they actually feel better about brands that had endorsers associated with scandal. Persons aged 45-54 were more likely to feel negatively toward brands (28% of that group shared that sentiment), and 18-34 year-olds were more likely to feel better about brands (11%).

Do these results mean that marketers should simply let their endorsers “live and let live?” Not necessarily; a partnership with a celebrity endorser is usually an expensive one. A celebrity’s problems have the potential to create negative brand associations, and that is a risk many marketers simply are not willing (and should not) take. The surprisingly large percentage of people who are indifferent toward celebrity scandal suggests a couple of themes, though. One, we love our heroes, whether they be movie stars, athletes, musicians, or from some other source of fame. Americans are able to forgive and forget relatively fast when it comes to the transgressions of their heroes. Two, I wonder if we have become desensitized to events such as celebrities getting in trouble for drug use, infidelity, or some other form of unacceptable or illegal behavior. If we rationalize the behavior as just being part of the world we live in today, coupled with affinity for our heroes, we may be inclined to shrug our shoulders and move on.

Marketing Metrics Must Be Embraced

A recent article in Advertising Age by Patrick Sarkissian garnered more than 70 comments in the three days following its posting to the Ad Age web site. The title of the article was “Why Metrics Are Killing Creativity in Advertising.” The article title and message created two camps among commentators: 1) creativity is being stifled by an overuse of metrics, and 2) cries of infringement on creativity is really an unwillingness to accept accountability. Strong, passionate arguments were made for both sides of the issue.

The main concern I had after reading some comments from those persons who believed creativity is being stifled by metrics is that there is a belief among some creatives that metrics cannot (or at least should not) be applied to their work. One argument that I buy is that brand relationships are often based on emotional bonds with customers. The development and nurturing of those bonds falls into a difficult area to measure in terms of ROI. Rather than fighting the incorporation of metrics to measure advertising performance, creatives should embrace metrics with an eye toward how a creative effort can be measured during the development stage of a campaign or even a single message.

I see parallels between the views of some creatives on the use of metrics and the views of some academics on using assessment tools to evaluate student learning. Some professors complain that assessment infringes on their academic freedom to teach a subject in the manner in which they deem appropriate. On the contrary, assessment is about setting learning outcomes and measuring whether students learned (i.e., using metrics to determine performance). Investment and implementation without assessment is a scary thought, whether it be in higher education or advertising. The bottom line is accountability, and using metrics is done in the name of making people accountable for decisions and performance. While some comments to Sarkissian’s article correctly point out that metrics used must be valid and measure relevant outcomes, the point that measurement of marketing investments is perhaps more necessary today than ever cannot be dismissed.

DMA Agreement on New FTC Guidelines for Testimonials, Endorsers Too Late

The Federal Trade Commission announced significant changes in October to guidelines for the practices of product testimonials and endorsers in advertising (read the FTC’s release). Among notable changes included testimonials no longer being protected by the disclaimer “results not typical.” Instead, advertisers must disclose the results consumers should expect from the advertised product. Endorsements by celebrities, bloggers, or word-of-mouth marketers must now be disclosed in terms of stating the nature of a relationship between endorser and brand (e.g., paid endorsement or endorser received free products to evaluate).

This week, the Direct Marketing Association, an industry group impacted significantly by the FTC changes, released a statement that it had approved changes to its Guidelines for Ethical Business Practices to be consistent with the FTC. While the direct marketing industry should be commended for aligning its ethics policies with federal guidelines, it is disappointing that it took the FTC’s action to bring about change. This situation is a great example of how inattention to self-regulation by an industry can lead to government regulation forcing change. If the DMA had taken the lead on these issues long ago, particularly the testimonial issue that has long been contentious, it could have had a stronger voice in setting policy.

It is almost always better for an industry to be responsible for policing itself instead of allowing regulatory agencies to dictate guidelines (at least from the industry’s perspective). In this case, the direct marketing industry either refused to believe the FTC would make changes (the existing guidelines were developed in 1980), or it failed to anticipate a new administration’s stance on consumer protection could accelerate government involvement in changing the guidelines. Perhaps other industries will learn from the DMA’s experience and be more proactive in self-regulation.

Celebrity Endorsers Influence Buying Decisions… Occasionally

Celebrity endorsements can move a brand from relative obscurity to greater awareness among consumers and increased buzz in the marketplace. But, which types of celebrities resonate as effective endorsers? According to a recent Adweek Media/Harris Poll, business leaders and professional athletes have the greatest impact. Not surprisingly, consumers view business leaders as the most persuasive (37% cited business leaders). Their expertise in business gives them a high level of credibility when endorsing products.

Enlisting professional athletes as product endorsers is a practice that spans several decades, and consumers still seem to be receptive to famous athletes hawking products (21% said athletes were most persuasive endorser). Acceptance of athlete endorsers was highest among persons ages 18-34, with 24% of that segment indicating athletes were the most persuasive type of endorser. In contrast, only 13% of the sample said athletes were the least persuasive endorser type, with business leaders being the only type with a lower percentage (11%).

Why do pro athletes go over well as product endorsers? First, many of them are well known. Their familiarity helps create awareness for the brands that hired them. Second, they are often admired by sports fans. The image people hold for Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods can influence the image held for brands endorsed by these premier athletes. Creation of a favorable brand image sets the stage for responses by consumers that could ultimately include product purchase.

Despite the warm and fuzzy feelings pro athletes might create, the reality is that endorsement advertising impacts a relatively small percentage of the overall audience. The Adweek/Harris study found that 80% of persons surveyed are not swayed by the presence of celebrities in ads. The implication of this finding is that marketers must understand celebrity endorsements are not the answer for every brand. We return to a basic tenet of marketing: know thy customer. Will your target market be persuaded in some way by your brand’s association with a celebrity? Moreover, is it worth the investment required to sign a celebrity? If the answer to either question is “no,” hiring a celebrity endorser is not the appropriate strategy.

Center for Media Research – “Endorsements Are a Mixed Bag”

Don’t Overlook Creative When Planning Online Ad Campaigns

Bad creative for online ads may render online campaigns less effective than not advertising at all. That conclusion comes from a Dynamic Logic study of online ad campaigns. Ad campaigns classified as among the top 20% in performance elevated their brands across all key metrics: brand and ad awareness, message association, brand favorability, and purchase intent. In contrast, campaigns in the bottom 20% of performance were associated with declines in all of the same key metrics.

It is a scary thought that a marketer would spend money to damage its brand. That was not the goal, of course, but the end result for those campaigns in the bottom 20% of performance was that the brand was worse off following the ad campaign. How could this happen? Online advertising often places a premium on planning considerations such as web site selection, ad size, placement on a page, and audience selection. While all of these decisions contribute to the success of an ad campaign, too, their effectiveness is hindered if the message turns off the target audience.

Online advertising represents a new channel for message placement. The communication process does not change. Effective encoding of messages so that the audience opts to pay attention, process information, and incorporate into their existing knowledge structures is still a must. Minimize the importance of creative in online ad campaign management at your own risk!

eMarketer – “Bad Campaign Worse than None at All”

Understanding Non-Clicks of Online Ads

The 80-20 rule is effectively used to make the point that a large majority of activity (sales, productivity, etc.) comes from a small minority of people. While percentages do not come out literally 80-20 every time, the point is well taken that most results are generated by a few people.

The principle behind the 80-20 rule applies to consumer response to online advertising. Research by comScore reveals that 85% of clicks for online ads are made by only 8% of Internet users. So instead of 80-20, clicks for online ads follow an 85-8 rule! Furthermore, 84% of web users do not click online ads.

What should we take away from these findings? Reduce spending on display ads online? Such a response might be understandable given 84% of web users do not act in the way we desire, but that would be the incorrect response. While click-throughs provide a measure of an audience responding to an ad, do ads that are not clicked still have an impact? The answer seems to be “yes.”

Related research by comScore has found online ad presence is related to greater brand-specific searches, increased visits to brand web sites, and increased online and offline sales. Notice that these outcomes are related to ad presence, not ad clicks. Thus, online ads appear to be noticed and processed by consumers, even if most of them do not take the action of clicking ads for more information and brand engagement.

Center for Media Research – “8% of Internet Users Account for 85% of All Clicks”