The Trouble With Ads That Tell You What You Want to Hear

Is consumer skepticism of advertising messages warranted?

Coke wants you to "Live Positively." Its website urges you to "put yourself first," "get involved," "protect the climate" and "make healthy lifestyle choices."

In a section on McDonalds website entitled "Food to Feel Good About," we are introduced to McDonald's director of nutrition, Dr. Cynthia Goody. We find she has a Ph.D. and an MBA and has served as faculty at Harvard and the Culinary Institute of America and she wants your kids to make healthy food choices. Walmart is all about saving people money so they can live better.

None of these facts are negative in any way but you get the crawling sensation that companies have moved a few steps away from what they are and have started telling you only what you want to hear.

I confess, I drink Coke, occasionally eat at McDonald's and even shop at Walmart when the spirit moves me. But I don't for a moment believe that Coke gives a teaspoon of sugar about how I live my life or that McDonald's really cares about my nutrition.

As for Walmart, I believe they want me to shop in their store. I do not believe they want me to shop in their store because it saves me money and I can then live better.

A recent study by Alterian concluded that consumer trust is at an all-time low and that as few as 6 percent of consumers believe they can trust what the company says about itself. In this era of failing banks, oil disasters and high unemployment, should marketers and their advertising agencies take pains to create more balanced and objective advertising messages?

The motivation to create persuasive communication is great. Profit margins have shrunk, companies are battling for fewer dollars and there is great pressure on marketing executives to perform. The average tenure of a chief marketing officer is about 28 months, which is actually an increase from a low of about 23 months in 2006.

Contrast that with that of the CEO, which is almost eight years or even the CFO -- a job which Forbes magazine calls the "worst job in America"-- at about 30 months. Even more telling is the advertising agency-client tenure, which in 1984 was 7.2 years on average but today stands at just 4.

Listen Carefully to What Ads Are Telling You

Clearly, marketing managers and agencies are under pressure to survive. Consumers have more ability with the web and smart phones to communicate to each other and share their feelings than at any other time in history. They are making demands that companies operate more transparently and responsibly.

Indeed, the reputation of brands is a very important component of their success. A significant part of a company's value is made up of how consumers feel about the company. So is it any wonder that today's companies and their agencies are creating messages that are telling consumers what they want to hear, even if those messages are somewhat out of line with who the company really is.

I wanted to make sure I didn't mention a lot of companies in this article. This is not a witch hunt. No one is served by finger-pointing. This is more a call to action for more balance and truth in advertising. The blame cannot be put on skeptical consumers. Advertising has the power to entertain, delight, inform and educate. The best ads stick in our minds and point us in a direction. They capture our imagination. Nike's "Just Do It" and the United Negro College Fund's "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" campaigns come to mind.

Take a look at this clever award-winning campaign for a German recruitment site called jobsintown. If Nike's tag line were "Our shoes give you the power to win" or even "Winners only wear Nike," we would question them.

If the company slogan were "Our shoes give you the power to save the planet," we would wonder if they were in their plants inhaling the fumes.

More than 25 years ago, I was a skinny college graduate, eager to begin my advertising career. I stood in a hallway at my first agency job and looked at rows of file cabinets containing all of the ads created by my employer.

I opened the cabinets and began to look at files documenting campaigns, a good number of which had stood the test of time. With clever writing, clear insights into consumer behavior and cut-through-the-clutter imagery, many of the ads had made products household names and built consumer confidence and trust.

That is the best of what advertising has to offer. More of that is needed now.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising, a full-service advertising agency based in New York City. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.