Has the advertising industry gone astray?

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The advertising industry is in crisis. Many people hate ads, and as some research tells us, ads have lost their effectiveness.

According to the popular narrative, South Africa’s most memorable and impactful television commercials were made between the 1980s and the late 1990s. This was a time when commercials like Sasol’s Ama-Glug-Glug and Telkom’s Molo Mhlobo were more than just a visual marketing tool to sell a product. Advertisements from this era had meaning, inspired and shaped culture, and played a vital role in uniting our nation.

Unfortunately, today South Africans are subjected to false, over-processed, over-stylized and severely photoshopped communications with curated and exaggerated outlooks on life. It’s quite worrying that for an industry that spent R47 billion in 2021 on media alone – excluding agency fees and production – what we’re seeing is mostly wallpaper that doesn’t build love of the brand nor does it deliver its effectiveness.

Despite the changing media landscape, left-brain thinking and short-termism may have something to do with it. According to Lemon Report produced by System1 Group CIO Orlando Wood, culture over the years has fluctuated between left-brain and whole-brain thinking and we are currently in a period of left-brain-centric culture. Because the left-brain’s primary tool is language, commercials use prominent voice-overs, on-camera monologues, or regular prose. The words would then impose themselves on the visuals, explaining what you should think and how you should react to what you see. It eschews things that only the right brain understands, so there’s no room for character, betweenness, dialogue, or drama.

During what was revered as the golden age of advertising (1960s to the mid-1990s), creatives produced top quality advertising with the highest production values. It required exotic locations, famous names, brilliant films, masterful special effects, and flawless editing. Although it took time and required large budgets, the results were impactful and long-lasting.

Over the past two decades, many independent South African advertising agencies have disappeared and been taken over by large international holding companies such as WPP, Omnicom and Publicis. It is estimated that almost 80% of the industry is now in foreign hands. These companies were built on the idea that by bringing all the capabilities of the marketing and advertising ecosystem under one roof – creation, research, public relations, media buying and planning, digital production and social media – they could act as a one-stop-shop for the biggest traders in the world. This led to a marketing-driven approach to generating profits using short-termism as a strategy.

The flip side

On the other hand, the shift to digital media has also seen more people move away from traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime don’t have ads, and realizing they weren’t reaching their target audience, ad budgets were spent where audiences and especially younger audiences are now going – in online and especially on social media.

Our attention span is thought to shorten with so many digital channels competing for our clicks that we can’t concentrate for too long. Marketers therefore encourage short-term business activations that focus on productivity, standardization, repetition, and risk avoidance. This not only hurts creativity and creative efficiency, but ultimately reduces agency fees and profit margins. Ads then tend to look flat, lacking depth or perspective and lacking a backdrop. The characters in an advertisement then also tend to be devitalized, inexpressive and presented as statues.

Advertising has the power to challenge the status quo, especially in South Africa, and address issues such as racism, diversity and representation, culture and inclusion. With digital media here to stay, it is crucial that the mindset must change to find the balance between long-term efficiency and short-term demand.

On the edge of change

Moving forward, I believe we are about to change again. Consumers are demanding that brands become more authentic, placing social and environmental considerations at the forefront of their buying decisions. Brands will need to consider their purpose and make sure it’s connected to the culture. Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand Study refers to consumers as “belief-driven shoppers”, where they choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stance on political or social issues that matter to them . This will give marketers the opportunity to inspire and elevate society.

Traditional media are making a comeback. While the closure of Associated Media Publishing (AMP) and Caxton Printing and Publishing came as a complete shock, many magazines are hanging on. And what we’ve seen with the print media industry is that it’s become quite divergent.

Some sources claim that local newspapers are now the dominant force in the print media landscape where they were once the small players. It seems that consumers perceive traditional media channels as more trustworthy than online media. With the concern over fake news and the speed with which things are published and shared online, people are finding it harder to trust what they read digitally.

Ultimately, it’s about brands and marketers understanding who their customers are, what they do, and what they like. Because we know consumers are always looking for engaging content, the key is for advertising to tap into culture in a unique way.

Culture-informed creativity turns heads. Advertising should prioritize craftsmanship and step into the shoes of the general public and create memorable characters and situations. It is widely noted that efficiency is a consequence of brands investing in creating ongoing support for distinctive brand assets and collections of assets in fluid devices over time.

Mpume Ngobese is co-chief executive of Joe Public United. His expertise lies in brand and customer/commercial marketing across different categories such as FMCG, Fashion, Beauty, Healthcare, Telecom, Financial Services, Culture, Legal Services, Hospitality, lifestyle, petrochemicals, retail and biotechnology.


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