Nov 17

Three Ways to Find Truth in Advertising

Posted by: Steve Wehrenberg  
Tagged in: Everything Talks

Note: this post presents content from a speech given by Steve Wehrenberg at Augsburg College on November 17.

Some don't believe it, but "truth" and "advertising" do belong in the same sentence. Even though the general public and many in the business community itself disagree, you can find truth in advertising. And more importantly, there should be more truth in advertising. Because, actually, in advertising nothing works better than the truth.

Your skepticism is documented: Surveys show that nearly one third of people "don't trust the information in any kind of ads" (Mintel Attitudes Toward Traditional Media Advertising and Promotion, Sept. 2010) and that 38 percent of folks would rate as "very low" the honesty and ethical standards of ad industry professionals (Gallop Honesty and Ethics Ranking, 2008).

But truth – universal truth, human truth and not lying for a higher truth – actually shapes really great advertising. You know what I'm talking about. You've been affected by a truth-tapping ad yourself. It's what makes brilliant creative work so brilliant.

Steve Wehrenberg presents “Can you find truth in advertising?” at Augsburg College Strommen Executive Speaker Series. (Video courtesy of Augsburg College.)

Before we talk about how that kind of truth lives in advertising, and how advertising captures truth, let's start with a basic definition. Webster defines truth as "fidelity, constancy; sincerity in action or character; fact." The definition appears rational.

But in the real world truth is much more complex, because people are complex and truth is personal. One person's truth is another's lie. People constantly frame and re-frame truth. We marketers call this "positioning" – the presentation of something based not on objective external factors but, rather, on selected factors chosen to shape a reality.

Language gives marketers power to construct positioning: consider the difference between using the following terms to describe the exact same house: "executive home" or "McMansion." The descriptors shape a relative interpretation and even can deliver a value judgment.

All this relativity provides lots of fodder for creativity. So back to truth in advertising. Let's explore three manifestations:

1. Universal Truths = Myths

Myths live as those dreams, passions, values and beliefs that swirl around in our collective unconscious. They're part of storytelling and tapped by advertising. Archetypes represent true characters in myth: the Hero, the Magician, the Ruler, the Explorer, the Outlaw.

Brands often tap these myths to tell their stories. Think of Jeep: the Explorer. Harley-Davidson: the Outlaw. Or Disney: the Magician.

2. Human Truth = Insights

An "insight" for advertisers is a truth hiding in plain sight. Galileo put it well: "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered. The point is to discover them."

Great advertising makes these discoveries; it finds these insights. And a lot of intuitive people in the business dig deep into our culture, attitudes and product benefits to uncover insights.

The famous "got milk?" ads are based on the insight that people drink milk with things: cookies, brownies, PB&J. Our recent Toro "Snow Globe" ad is based on the insight that "winter comes fast" and people enjoy conquering the chaos of a heavy snow. Very true for us in Minnesota.
Ads that leverage insights are ads that are funny because they ARE true.

3. Not Lying for a Higher Truth = Ethics

In spite of universal and human truths, the industry often seems slippery and weasel-ly. Why? Because some in the business choose to lie for a perceived "higher truth": the bottom line, a quick sale, a flash of attention.

These breaches of trust are bad for all of us. Consider the recent ads pulled in Great Britain: Lancome, for too much airbrushing of Julia Roberts; and, more recently, Marc Jacobs, for presenting minor Dakota Fanning too provocatively.

In our industry, we constantly face three big ethical issues: deceit vs. accuracy, profit vs. protection, and obfuscation vs. transparency. The marketplace today values credibility as much as creativity. A high ethical standard is a business imperative. We must lead the way.

Advertisers and marketers, we can hold our heads high when our work taps truth, shares truth and sticks to the truth. When we are truth-telling leaders, our work and our industry will prosper.

One hundred years ago, advertising legend H. K. McCann linked truth to everything that matters in our business with his agency slogan: Truth Well Told. Our own positioning statement at Campbell Mithun is a version of that: Everything Talks.

When Everything Talks, and everyone talks, the story should be true.

-- Steve Wehrenberg, CEO 

Comments (2)
written by Steph Flynn, January 11, 2012
Hello Steve,
My name is Stephanie Flynn. I am a Creative Advertising Student in my final year of my degree at Leeds College of Art, England.
I hope to have a career in the creative department of an Advertising Agency in the future, but for now I I conducting my final year dissertation.
I came across your talk last night whilst searching for information on 'truths' within advertising. This is a subject that I am completely enthusiastic about .I hope that by conducting research, and investigating into Advertising truths it will progress my own creative insight development when creating campaigns.
When I started to watch your lecture I became engrossed.It has inspired my entire final degree dissertation. I believe by identifying a truth when creating a campaign is the eureka moment for success.

Steve, I was wondering if you could personally help me out by answering a few questions?

1.As Advertising Creatives what is the technique to creating fresh insights?
2. Why can a truth change human behaviour and human belief?
3. Do you ever use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, to identify truths?

I would be very grateful if you could answer the above questions however, I understand you are a busy ad man.
Thank You
Steph Flynn
written by Kris Olson, January 11, 2012
Thanks for reaching out, Steph! I've forwarded your questions to Steve. Glad you liked the speech.
Kris Olson

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