Telling the truth in ads always works

24 Mar,2015


A little exaggeration is ok to make a point. But agencies must stand up to their clients if they are being forced to make tall claims, ad guru and BBH founder Sir John Hegarty tells Labonita Ghosh. And in such instances, self-regulation by an industry body is always better than guidelines being imposed from the outside


Can creativity happen without some exaggeration and tall claims?

Creativity always involves some exaggeration because you exaggerate to make some point. Since the beginning of time, mankind has done that. But in advertising it must be done in a way to engage people and not just try to shock them. That’s the real creative skill


So where does one draw the line, given that the exaggeration and tall claims may be subjective?

There’s the idea that the truth is a moving feast. Your truth isn’t necessarily my truth. The Japanese film Rashomon deals with some of this – what is the truth and what did you see. People genuinely think they saw one thing or another. I like to use the word integrity, because it imposes upon you a responsibility. Did you do something because you believed it to be true, as opposed to someone seeing a different truth? And once you’re doing what you believe to be true – and I don’t mean being dishonest with yourself – then I think that’s all you can be expected to do. I don’t think you can do more than that. So we try and build our strategies around some truth because that’s what will resonate more with people. And [such advertising] is much more effective.


One could argue that that’s a bit cynical. But actually, the truth really does work, as an advertising and commercial strategy. Trouble is, a huge number of brands don’t believe that they can tell the truth. In hair care ads, why is that they always show someone with lovely, long hair? It’s such a cliché. But a brand that finds a way of talking about hair and what the product does for it in a way that is more unique, and more relevant, is the brand that will walk away with the prize. The point is to make that truth relevant at that particular moment in time. After all, circumstances change. I may have different requirements at different times from the product I buy. So it needs to be relevant at that point in time for me. It isn’t just enough to sit up and say ‘I tell the truth”.


For instance, we always tall about the famous ad campaign done by DDB for Volkswagen in the early ’60s. It’s famous because it created more than advertising. What it said was that the Volkswagen is ugly, but it works. This, at a time when American cars were selling luxury, size and volume and such. The ad worked against the current point of view, and there were enough people with whom this idea resonated, for the campaign to have become a huge success. The point is that it has always got to be relevant.


You mentioned integrity earlier. But isn’t that different for different people? Whose integrity do we trust?

[As a brand] you have to do it. Because you’re the one communicating the message which will then make people decide whether or not they want to buy your product. That’s the choice you make. I don’t think we should be afraid of making choices – after all, that’s what brands are about. Great brands stand out because they stand for what they believe in. They don’t try to be all things to all people. All brands define themselves in some way or another, so you shouldn’t be afraid of doing that.


What happens when, as an agency, you have the client twisting your arm about projecting something?

That happens all the time. Agencies are handed the information and they can only trust that their client will stand by it. But if they think it’s incorrect or not working, they should also tell the client so. We were working for a large, rather famous cola company many years ago, and the reason they said their product was failing slightly was because their competitor had more sugar in their drink. We found that hard to believe so we tested it ourselves and discovered that [our client’s] product actually had more sugar, and their product failing had nothing to do with this at all. We shared this information with them and they had to back down on their claim. So agencies can’t just be the messenger. They have to be a responsible messenger too.


Given that there will always be a bit of a gap between the broadcast/ printing of an ad, and action being taken on a claim, can self-regulation work effectively?

Self-regulation has certainly been effective in the UK. There, the Advertising Standards Authority, which is financed by the advertising industry, regulates, brings out reports and issues condemnations if there are any. I think it’s better if there’s self-regulation rather than outside regulation. Advertising campaigns now are very expensive. So a client won’t be happy if it has to pull a campaign [because of some irresponsible advertising]. But one of the things I find amazing is somehow companies manage to distance themselves from the advertising when they’re in trouble. As a company you are employing the advertising agency and you are making these claims. So you should be taking responsibility. One way to make companies toes the line is by constantly naming and shaming them as offenders. If you keep have your ads withdrawn, it’s not going to be good for your mage, it won’t go down well with your shareholders and all sorts of things will begin to impact them, which will make a company think twice before making tall claims.


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