The New Year offers a fresh start. Along with all those personal pledges, marketers may want to make a few resolutions of their own. Here are some suggestions.
1) Stop insulting women.
To be fair, some advertisers have come a long way, baby, in their portrayals of women. But for every brand challenging the use of the phrase "like a girl" as an insult, or pledging not to Photoshop its models, or abandoning its tradition of puerile and demeaning Superbowl ads – as GoDaddy finally did this year – there are plenty still getting it wrong.
Subway had to pull an ad that told women to diet so they could fit into sexy, skimpy Halloween costumes. Veet also had to nix a campaign that shamed ladies for failing to keep up a regimen of perfect hairlessness. (Its ads conflated a hint of stubble with disgusting "dudeness" – a message that also managed to insult men.) Victoria's Secret promoted its "Body" lingerie brand with ads for "The Perfect 'Body" featuring an array of models with just one body type. And Old Spice's ads feature women so stupid, they don't notice the man they are flirting with is a robot.
Now digital media have given consumers a forum to hold brands to account.
"The whole social media universe, and Twitter, has allowed for all these conversations that have never happened before," said Jo-Ann Munro, creative director for advertising firm Marketel and its marketing-to-women division, Marketelle. "There's a whole new world out there that [advertisers] are not controlling."
It cuts both ways. Happily, fewer ads are using incompetent, embarrassing father figures as the butt of their jokes. That progress needs to continue too, both because men deserve not to be insulted, and because the women who love them aren't laughing at this tired trope.
2) Pay more attention to privacy.
Companies such as Home Depot, JPMorgan, and Target have seen their brands damaged when customer information was vulnerable to hackers. But investing in protection against cybercrime is just one part of the issue.
Digital advertising is based on tracking consumers' behaviour, and even large companies do not always handle sensitive information correctly. The industry has offered people the ability to opt out of behavioural targeting online. But privacy policies for many services where people share information are still written in lengthy legalese. And mobile devices remain a dicey area: global privacy authorities – including in Canada – recently highlighted how mobile apps collect user information, often for advertising purposes and without adequate user controls.
"Involve your customers. Make sure you communicate with them," said Ann Cavoukian, the former Ontario information and privacy commissioner, and now executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University. "People like to feel that they're in control of their data. If you make it easier to see how data is gathered and stored, they're more likely to trust you.…When you have their trust, they will be more likely to give you permission to use their information,... It's not privacy versus marketing. It's privacy and marketing. Privacy is good for business. It will give you a competitive advantage." she added.
3) Be useful.
People will pay for media content (look at Netflix) but they also want things for free (look at most of the Internet). Ads subsidize that stuff we like, and the industry could do a better job reminding consumers of that fact.
One way to do that is to make the advertising less intrusive, and more useful. Elbow in on social media with inane jokes and comments in real-time, and it's annoying. Make good ads that aren't painful to sit through, and consumers will resent advertisers less.
Marketers have also discovered recently that they can endear themselves to consumers by showing them a basic understanding of our diversity. There is nothing wrong with white couples and their photogenic children. But brands such as Cheerios, Expedia.com and Honey Maid are being rewarded for celebrating a more diverse picture of family life: one that recognizes same-sex couples and people of different races and cultural backgrounds.
No, this isn't about political correctness. And no, they're not just commercials. Advertising plays a role in portraying an "aspirational" vision of our lives, and in defining the norm. It matters.
"We have this huge megaphone, and we can use that megaphone for good," Sarah Gavin, Expedia's senior director of marketing, said in an interview with The Globe earlier this year. "… It is important to me that the ads my children see reflect the diversity around them, the same way it is important that they go to schools that are diverse. And it is even more important for people in these diverse groups when they feel welcomed and normal when they turn on their television."
4) Stop pretending that people click on ads.
At the current rate, advertisers worldwide will lose $6.3-billion (U.S.) to fraud in 2015, according to a recent study from White Ops Inc. and the Association of National Advertisers. Fraud happens when hackers create networks of "bots," pretending they're human Web users to fake out advertisers. Companies pay to place ads on websites that appear to have good traffic, and some of that money is going to criminals.
Why does it happen? One reason is that a common way marketers measure the effectiveness of online ads is woefully primitive. Advertisers pay by the number of "impressions (people who see an ad)." But they also often set click-through rates, a percentage of impressions that lead to clicks to their website, that campaigns must achieve.
"They don't really measure the quality of the placement; they're just measuring a response. And those are the types of responses that feed into fraud: auto-clicking robots, invisible impressions, those fraudulent responses feed into imperfect measurements," said David Katz, executive vice-president of EQ Works, a digital media buying company. "Today's advertiser needs to be concerned less with impressions and click through rates, and start measuring metrics that really matter like viewability [whether an ad is actually seen], engagement and video completion."
To fight online fraud, advertisers need to stop believing that the benchmarks set by bad players are achievable. Legitimate websites that invest in creating content can't promise the moon. Marketers need to be willing to reset their standards – including how much it should cost to reach the number of people they want online – and demand better measures of success from their agencies. Clicks and impressions can be gamed. Measuring purchasing behaviour (including offline) and how it relates to online campaigns, is harder to do, but also harder to fake for fraudsters looking to siphon off billions from global marketing budgets.
"These are expensive [measurement] tools, they're harder to employ," said Andrew Casale, vice-president of strategy at Casale Media. "But if we don't start pushing the boundaries of the measurement of media online, we won't fix this problem."