Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sleeping Watchdogs

It’s fairly well-known that older generations (Silent and Boomer) are more easily influenced by advertising than younger generations (X and Millennial).  The various explanations for this phenomenon, such as media saturation, rang hollow – but a chance conversation with a few members of the Silent Generation led me to better understand their relationship with advertising.  They believe the watchdogs are still awake.

More explicitly, when asked why they believed the claims of an advertiser, the response was invariably that “they wouldn’t let them advertise it if it weren’t true.”
When asked who “they” are, these watchdogs that would prevent advertisers from making false claims, their answers were the media and consumer protection agencies.

Older generations believe that the media is selective in accepting advertising: that when an advertiser buys a magazine or television ad, the publication or network reviews the advertisement and validates that the claims will be delivered upon.  They also believe that consumer protection agencies are proactive in doing the same – that there is some mechanism by which claims are tested and only those which are true are allowed to be communicated to the general public.

Perhaps this was true in the golden days of their youth – I cannot speak to the past – but in the present day, the notion that the media, consumer protection agencies, or anyone stands between a deceptive advertiser and the general public seems incredibly na├»ve.  

The media are paid by their advertisers, and will run almost any advertisement that anyone is willing to pay them to run.   The one exception is that if an advertisement would be offensive to their audience (by whatever standard), the medium realizes that it would do them financial harm (by causing member of their audience, whose attention they wish to sell to other advertisers, to tune out).   I am unaware of any instances in which a television channel, radio station, magazine, billboard rental, or any other medium was ever held accountable for the content of the advertising it helped to promulgate.

Consumer protection agencies, even those backed with government authority, are not proactive.   They do not have the mechanism to be proactive (there is no required review of an advertisement before it is published), nor do they have an interest.   In the same way that the police can only respond after a crime has been committed, so must the protection agencies wait until deception has occurred and damage has been done before they have any basis to take action – and even then, they bear the burden of proof that there was deception, and that any damage was a direct result, both of which are very difficult propositions.

In all, it is more a matter of faith than fact: the older generations rest on the assumption that the watchdogs are awake and that any advertising message that reaches them can be believed – so they do believe it.   Meanwhile the younger generations are skeptical of advertising and have no such assumptions, nor are they likely to become more trusting and gullible as they age.

And understanding this premise, it makes better sense why advertising is less effective with younger generations in the marketplace, and unless the watchdogs wake, it is doubtful that advertising will ever regain its credibility.

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