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In the age of bullshit, we need to make marketing “noble” again, says Unilever’s Keith Weed

Advertising has a problem – 69 per cent of the British public don’t trust it – as the Advertising Association admitted at its LEAD 2019 event.

Unilever’s Keith Weed, Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson, and the BBC’s Evan Davis were among those weighing in with their ideas on what advertising needs to do to shape up.

Watson described himself as a “failed ad exec,” revealing that he was once a junior account man at a direct mail agency in Chelsea. “I loved the bullshit of it all,” he said, before making a serious case for a reduction in HFSS ads.

Evan Davis

Watson argued that Coca-Cola has spent billions over the years linking its drink to youth and beauty and sport, but more truthfully it should be linked to diabetics in hospital beds. Kids’ cereal packaging, particularly the cartoon characters on brands like Coco Pops and Frosties, also came under fire.

The “bullshit” theory of advertising was echoed by Evan Davis. He said: “Part of the problem is that bullshitters come to believe their own bullshit. The people who make the Wonga ads come to believe they are doing good, because they are programmed to believe in whatever pays the bills.”

One of the biggest eroders of trust is micro-targeting and all the issues that come with it. Steve Hatch, Facebook’s VP Northern Europe, turned up to talk about the tech giant’s ad library, weekly report and “paid for by” disclaimer, while the IPA revealed it has a “bombardment working group” to address the problem.

Direct Line CMO Mark Evans said: “Advertisers are wasting money over-serving adverts. There isn’t the framework for measurement to recognize when you are doing it, but we see it in research and we see it in reality, in the letters and emails we get. ‘I’ve already bought that product. Stop!’”

Hamish Nicklin, chief revenue officer at The Guardian, said: “We’ve over-steered into the over-use of data. CMOs need to move back to understanding the customer and thinking about the message; they mustn’t become CTOs.”

Weed disputed this: “I really don’t think we’ve over-steered. We’ve woken up to the new world. We do have problems with data, but we also have problems with annoying TV ads. We have to think about making advertising do what it’s meant to do – engage with people, share information, and build brands. We need to make it noble again.”

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