Friday, April 10, 2009

David Ogilvy Must Be Spinning in His Grave

David Ogilvy (June 23, 1911 to July 21, 1999) must be spinning in his grave.

Known as the “Father of Advertising” and someone a half century ago Time Magazine called “The most sought after wizard in today’s advertising industry,” Ogilvy was most notably known for expanding both the bounds of advertising creativity and the morality of advertising.

Imagine what David Ogilvy would say today as, according to O’Dwyer’s PR Report, “PR pros, advertisers and trade groups are crying foul over proposed updates to guidelines concerning endorsements and testimonials in advertising . . . . ” by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

It may be true that if these regulations are passed, they will cause sweeping change in the way products, ideas, and concepts are presented to consumers. In what way, you ask? Advertising, marketing, and PR might be a lot more truthful.

Industry positions, including my own profession, would have Jack Nicholson looking at you and saying, as he did in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.” Sounds to me like there’s going to be a need for extraordinary crisis management and reputation recovery preparation.

Let’s see. What would actually happen if these regulations were approved? One example frequently mentioned is the product disclaimer, “results may vary.” Under the new regulations, this disclaimer would be replaced by very explicit descriptions of the variations in service, quality, appearance, etc. In another case, the pretty young actress advertising or endorsing a product must actually have used the product and gotten a result, or her limited use (or non-use) of the product must be disclosed in the ad. How about having “consumers” who endorse products in an ad be required to actually use the product, or if actors or non-users are used in the ad (and paid for their words), this must be disclosed prominently along with the advertised product. And here’s a big one, those reviewing a product, service, or an experience (such as in tourism) must disclose if they received the product for free and/or if they were paid to provide a review, or given something of value, e.g., a fishing vacation, to write about the fishing.

It is absolutely bazaar to listen to “communicators” obfuscate and whine about what’s being proposed. Dan Jaffe, Executive Vice President of Government Relations for the Association of National Advertisers, quoted in O’Dwyer’s PR Report (in April 2009 issue) said, “These disclosures go too far, are too restricting and make it impossible to apply useful information for consumers.”

It’s Jack Nicholson, again, being asked to tell us that we “can’t handle the truth.”

Other arguments against these regulations are typically silly. One argument is that the regulations create too much room for subjective interpretation. What are they talking about? The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), of which I’ve been a member for decades and a member of its Board of Ethics and Professional Standards for much of that time, provided the circumloquitous observation that “striking a balance among governmental interests to protect consumers from deception, the proposed updates . . . are not sufficiently clear to prevent confusion and uncertainty that will have communications professionals without adequate clarity to advise the clients who rely on them.” What a pile of crap.

These industry positions raise ethical questions that deserve serious thinking and public exploration. If the goal is something other than the truth, than what is the goal?

Well, get set for some interesting stories. A number of organizations, including the Association of National Advertisers, are threatening to go to court if the FTC pursues its regulations.

Going to court on this issue reminds me of the story about the crook who staged a robbery using a pistol. Out of anger, he fired the pistol, but nothing happened. So he looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger again. It worked this time.

My prediction? Communicators, public relations practitioners, advertisers, and marketers are going to be ripped to shreds and laughed to pieces. Where should these organizations and Jack O’Dwyer’s PR Report (which editorialized along with its marketing colleagues against FTC regulations) be:

  1. Consumers ought to be able to get as much information as possible to make up their own minds. Information by professional communicators should be clear, concise, constructive, and aggressively truthful.
  2. The notion that too much information will confuse consumers is demeaning and arrogant. This notion insults every consumer from the 95-year old who is struggling to understand the opaque phrases of the debate (like PRSA’s) to the four-year old who is enticed by the fancy packaging of a product only to open the box and find far less than what was anticipated, whether it’s cereal, a toy, a gift for mom, or just something he or she wanted to have to feel good.
  3. If a food product comes packaged in a wonderful box with pictures of all kinds of fruits and flowers on the cover, but only one or two of those fruits and flowers are actually in the product, do you really have to ask if this is a truthful depiction of this product? A six-year old could figure this one out.

The sophomoric level that this discussion is about to take was typified by O’Dwyer’s PR Report editor, John Gingerich (in an editorial in the April 2009 issue), who said it best when, at the end of a stumbly, mumbly, fumbly, bumbly, and silly 250-word editorial opposing the regulations, he summarized, “If the messages are truthful—if they motivate and captivate audiences to set goals and achieve for themselves—who cares if the spokesperson, some impossibly perfect veneration of our cultural plasticity, has never used the product? We want to see stupid, beautiful people on T.V. At least I do.”

After reading this, do you really have to guess who really can’t handle the truth?

David (Ogilvy), rest easy, old friend. This time the government is here to help.

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