03 Dec 2007  Research & Ideas

Authenticity over Exaggeration:
The New Rule in Advertising

Advertisers thought technology was their friend in identifying and creating new customers. Funny thing happened along the way, though: Now consumers are using the Internet to blunt traditional commercial messages. Time for companies to rethink their strategy, says HBS professor John A. Deighton. Key concepts include:

  • In today's media-rich world, traditional advertising models are breaking down. Now, the consumer runs the show.
  • Successful advertising campaigns today are self-parodying and spark discussions rather than blatantly sell products.
  • As digital interactivity increases the contexts in which people use new media, it becomes less and less productive to think of people as consumers alone.

 

Imagine the glee of marketers at the dawn of the Internet era—could anyone imagine a more sophisticated, precise way of reaching consumers? By tracking the purchasing habits of its prey, marketers could respond with targeted advertising and special offers, resulting in (of course) increased sales.

The past 10 years have seen some level of this direct marketing model bear out. But according to an HBS working paper to be published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, consumers are using technology to learn about marketers, rather than the other way around.

While product consumers use sites such as eBay, YouTube, and Facebook to gather information and share opinions on how they spend their money, an entirely new marketing philosophy is called for, one in which the marketer no longer controls the message.

In "Digital Interactivity: Unanticipated Consequences for Markets, Marketing, and Consumers," HBS professor John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld, research director of Canada's Mobile MUSE Consortium, pinpoint 5 qualities of success in this new world of digital media marketing.

In this new reality, it's the consumer who runs the show for the most part, not the marketer—in fact, forget the "consumer" label altogether.

It's too limiting.

Deighton cites Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign, a multiphase effort with an underlying theme that subverts traditional beauty product messages of aspiration and perfection. In one ad, full-sized, regular-looking women are used. In another, young girls reveal insecurities about their looks, showing the harm done by unrealistic standards set by the industry. (Dove is also the subject of a new case by Deighton.)

"Authenticity becomes a much more desirable property than exaggeration."

"The story of Dove is one of a brand that progressively cedes control," Deighton says. "In the 1950s, Dove's advertising approach was similar to a World War II military campaign with a heavy bombardment of 30- and 60-second messages with very strong, functional content. It was all delivered with complete control over the message and the media."

Word to the media wise

That sort of approach isn't possible in today's media-rich world—and probably wouldn't be very effective anyway.

"It's more like the Vietnam War now," Deighton continues. "The ideas have to belong to the people you're attempting to engage with, and that's going to be achieved through indirect methods rather than by going directly at the enemy." Instead of overwhelming consumers with a message, get them talking by presenting a topic they want to discuss. Then stand back and cross your fingers.

"When a brand adopts a point of view, rather than simply making a claim for softer skin, for instance, it can become a lightning rod for discourse," Deighton remarks. "You have to be confident that your message can withstand reinterpretation."

The Dove ads, for example, have been parodied on late-night television, although that level of exposure hasn't bothered Unilever, Dove's parent company. "An executive there told me that you can't buy this kind of publicity," says Deighton.

The new rules

But what does this all boil down to for companies that want to be successful in this relatively new environment? In the working paper, Deighton and Kornfeld discuss 5 aspects of digital interactivity, including
  • Thought tracing. Firms infer states of mind from the content of a Web search and serve up relevant advertising; a market born of search terms develops.
  • Ubiquitous connectivity. As people become increasingly "plugged in" through cell phones and other devices, marketing opportunities become more frequent as well—and technology develops to protect users from unwanted intrusions. A market in access and identity results.
  • Property exchanges. As with Napster, Craigslist, and eBay, people participate in the anonymous exchange of goods and services. Firms compete with these exchanges, and a market in service, reputation, and reliability develops.
  • Social exchanges. People build identities in virtual communities like Korea's Cyworld (90 percent of Koreans in their 20s are members). Firms may then sponsor or co-opt communities. A market in community develops that competes on functionality and status.
  • Cultural exchanges. While advertising has always been part of popular culture, technology has increased the rate of exchange and competition for buzz. In addition to Dove's campaign, Deighton cites BMW's initiative to hire Hollywood directors and actors to create short, Web-only films featuring BMWs. In the summer of 2001, the company recorded 9 million downloads.

These 5 aspects show increasing levels of effective engagement in creating social meaning and identity, Deighton suggests, noting that the first 2 (thought tracing and ubiquitous connectivity) change the rules of marketing but don't alter the traditional paradigm of predator and prey. In the last 3 (property, social, and cultural exchanges), the marketer has to become someone who is invited into the exchange or is even pursued (as in the case of the BMW films) as an entity possessing cultural capital.

So what's the best course of action for marketers faced with this complex new world of meaning-making? Deighton challenges his students in HBS's executive Owner/President Management Program to think of a witty, self-aware ad that they could create for their business for the price of a handheld camera.

Admittedly, this is no easy feat when you run a scrap metal dealership. But it can be done. One popular video on YouTube, "A Big Ad," features 3 young men parodying a grand-scale, cast of thousands Carlton Draught beer ad for a small local dairy.

Deighton also cites a former Swiss student now working for a pharmacy lab who finds young, classically trained musicians; records their work; and distributes the CDs to customers.

"He blends the purity of the artist and a sense of discovery with his business," he says. "It speaks to a certain authenticity, which in this world becomes a much more desirable property than exaggeration."

And as digital interactivity increases the contexts in which people use new media, it becomes less and less productive to think of people as consumers alone.

"If a company limits its engagement to the part of the person's life when he or she is thinking about skin care, for example, it diminishes that person and marginalizes the brand," Deighton says. "I think the central idea here is that in the future, brands will be more talked about than talking."

About the author

Julia Hanna is associate editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.