Ads Pushing Too Hard? Psh.

Yesterday I had the…well, let’s say, pleasure of reading an article by the author Matt Richtel in the Business section of The New York Times entitled, “How Ads Can Push Too Hard”.  To read the article, visit

When I first saw that title, I thought, “Ads pushing too hard?  How interesting.  I didn’t think that was possible.”  After reading the article, however, I still don’t think it is.

Richtel begins,

People like to associate with brands that reflect how they see themselves. That’s an axiom of advertising. And so we have slogans telling us that “Choosy Moms Choose Jif.” Or, “If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirecTV!”  But a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research says ads like these can backfire. That’s because such assertive slogans remove a sense of freedom. What if I don’t have DirecTV? Are you telling me I’m not a real sports fan?”

This study, conducted earlier this year and helmed by Amit Bhattacharjee, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, suggests that customers get turned off when they can’t easily form synergy between their identities and the positioning of the product.  Bhattacharjee prefaces the study by saying,

Consumers prefer brands positioned around identities they possess. Accordingly, the consumer identity literature emphasizes the importance of a clear fit between brands and target identities, suggesting that identity marketing that explicitly links brands to consumer identity should be most effective…compared to messages that merely reference consumer identity, messages that explicitly define identity expression reduce purchase likelihood, despite more clearly conveying identity relevance.

Okay, so let’s back up for a second.  I will agree that people form relationships with brands with which they feel a connection.  But saying that slogans can be “assertive” at times”?  And they “inhibit a sense of freedom within the consumer”?  Come on, now.  That’s just being silly.

Marketing should be bold.  If the marketer doesn’t have the courage of their convictions about their product, how can they expect the consumer to form their own beliefs about the product?  A marketer cannot afford to be ambivalent and blasé about their product, lest no one forms any relationship at all with it.  It’s a given that they have to target their efforts, and yes, this does mean some consumer groups are excluded.  But that’s okay!  As Bhattacharjee said that purchase likelihood is reduced when messages “explicitly define identity expression”, that’s the nature of the beast.  Competitors of the product will be glad to snatch those consumers right up if they’re not willing to purchase the product.

The last sentence of the article reads, “To Mr. Bhattacharjee, the lesson for marketers is to ‘reference identity without being too explicit; you do want a lighter touch.'”  What is meant by “lighter touch”?  “If you call yourself someone who periodically enjoys watching a sporting event on television, when he has a chance, you gotta have DirecTV!”  Or, “Moms who couldn’t care less about the brand of peanut butter they buy for their children choose Jif”?  Ridiculous, right?  As I said, marketing is about making a statement, and when you’re dealing with million-dollar national campaigns, this statement needs to be precise, punctual, and relevant.  True, people’s feelings about a product can sometimes be convoluted.  Human behavior is incredibly complicated.  But marketing cannot be.  It can be malleable, in conjunction with changing consumer preferences, but the message always needs to be specific, in whatever way, shape, or form it takes.

The methods by which brands connect their products to their consumers are founded upon distinct preferences dictated by their consumers.  Thus, as marketing research would suggest, the consumers have specific thoughts and feelings, which marketers take into consideration when they devise marketing strategies among specific targeted groups.  Therefore, while some people may feel that the message is too “assertive” and diverts them away from the product, the marketer should always be more concerned with those with whom the message resonates.  But they should never compromise creativity and directness for the feelings of those whom they weren’t interested in targeting in the first place.  I fell in love with marketing and advertising because of the ways it connected and resonated with people.  Because of its courage.  Because of its humanity.  The ads I’ll remember forever might have been somewhat exclusive, but they were never passive.  And when you’re trying to connect with a consumer, it should be as direct as conversation.

Besides, I never did like Jif anyway.  Skippy’s Super Chunk is where it’s at.


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