Paul Catmur: How advertising helped bad products


The great thing about mass-media advertising was that it worked. If you put your product in front of millions of consumers and they would respond by buying it.

The terrible thing about mass-media advertising was that it worked. Manufacturers didn’t have to bother about making great products, as long as they spent enough on media that was often enough.

If in doubt, throw money at it

I’ll give you an example. I once worked on a chocolate brand that was being overtaken in sales by its main rival. The management was very upset by this and called us in to help.

Research suggested that the rival’s product was cheaper, looked better in the store, and that consumers preferred the taste. Our client acknowledged these issues but considered that improving their own product, making it look better, or even cutting their price was much too hard and instead had decided to increase their advertising spend to try and convince the consumer that they were wrong.

Familiarity breeds content

It’s very hard to tell which is the best washing powder, soap, soup, hamburger, or mid-range SUV because we just don’t have time to objectively sample them then reach a rational hierarchy of superiority. Therefore we often settled for whatever was put in front of us, trusting that if we saw it on TV, so would all our friends and neighbours, so we could all buy it together.

This is not so much laziness as Darwinist conformity. If you were a sensible Stone Age consumer then you ate whatever everybody else was eating. Those who weren’t happy with this consensus and went off looking for a unique berry to signify their individuality generally didn’t come back.

Doing your own research

With the rise of the Internet and the corresponding weakening of traditional media channels we have started to look elsewhere for trust. No longer would we rely on the likes of Ronald McDonald for product information.

As the Internet provides a vast supply of whatever it is you’re looking for, this allows people to dismiss any facts they don’t like the look of and instead find others that are more to their taste.

Of course, those that look in disdain at people who scour the Internet for vaccination advice that suits their dislike of needles, are often the same people who pray that the Russian people will ignore their national media and find the truths about the Ukrainian war elsewhere. We live in strange, contradictory times.

The upside to online discovery is that companies with superior products, yet who do relatively small amounts of advertising, can blossom. Examples would be Uber, Tesla, Air BNB, Netflix, and Apple. While you may not particularly like some (or any) of these products, they are all revolutionising their sectors.

It's getting better

The success of products that rely on their superiority rather than advertising is not just confined to clever utilisation of technology.

For example, I use headphones a lot when walking the dog. Listening to podcasts is a great way of making up for Monty’s limited conversational prowess. But which headphones? The best ones for sound quality are bulky and don’t like the rain; but the small ones that fit in your ear are unlikely to last long with my ability to lose anything smaller than a two-story house.

So I had a look online. Like those who deduce a planet should be there before they actually find it, I knew what I was after, but I wasn’t quite sure that it existed. Before long I came across a set of earphones that were Bluetooth, light, waterproof, and comfortable. This was confirmed by a number of product reviews (after a while you get a cynical instinct for the more trustworthy ones), so I bought. They are brilliant.

I did this without ever seeing an ad, having a friend recommend them, reading a “Best New Headphones” magazine, trying them myself, or even having heard of the brand. In the past this would have been unthinkable. I followed the same process in buying an electric mountain bike (I know, a sure sign of ageing) with similarly satisfactory results.

Worse ads equals better products

I don’t mean to bite the hand that fed me, but if the slow death of mass advertising means the growth of better products then that is surely a good thing. It may just be that the power of advertising to allow mediocre products to thrive is being superseded by the oxygen that allows superior products to rise.

Still, I do miss those great TV ads.

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