The Limits of Advertising

With all the political ads out there these days, I’m trying to avoid talking about commercial advertising.  But this ad from AT&T caught my attention:

It’s a great execution, from the animated kids drawing to the iconic Gene Wilder song from “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

It hooked me emotionally and engaged my curiosity — what is this ad for?

Needless to say, I was disappointed when it was revealed that it was part of AT&T’s “rethink possible” campaign.  Sigh.  Advertising can and does change opinions, but it can only do that if people have a sense that what you’re saying in the ad is true.  If it connects to what they believe is authentic.

There was a great article about Wal-Mart from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that talked about Walmart’s efforts to reform its image.  At first Walmart tried tricks and gimmicks, in essence defending itself, positive blog buzz and PR efforts.  But those efforts fell flat or blew up in their face.  Then the CEO had an epiphany: “If we want to reform our image, we need to change the way we do things.”  That’s when Walmart started forming alliances with labor to support health care reform, started pushing more environmentally friendly standards in its supply chain and stores, started cleaning up their act with regards to their labor practices.  They changed the story by changing their actions.

Advertising can help people realize your story has changed (or is changing), think of the Dominos Pizza ad or the GM ad that I reviewed a while back.  THey were announcements that those companies were changing direction.  This ad by AT&T is more akin to the Toyota apology ad.  As moving as it is, as well executed as it is, it doesn’t change my opinion of AT&T.  If AT&T wants me to re-think the possible, tell me your rethinking your network, rethinking your customer service, rethinking whatever you’re changing, tell me how you’re rethinking the possible.  Then an ad like this might be effective down the road after the story has started to change to reinforce that new perspective.

There’s a maxim in marketing that a logo is not a brand.  Well just saying the words doesn’t change reality, coming up with a nifty new slogan and ad campaign doesn’t make me think AT&T’s network is any better when my iPhone is still dropping calls left and right.  Change has to start from a place of truth and authenticity, there are limits to what ads can do.

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