Five marketing fallacies that only the blinkered believe

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Marketing is full of fallacious commentary, opinion and vendor sales speak.

Earlier this year I rounded up some digital fallacies, but now I want to focus on marketing more broadly and some of its flawed reasoning.

I should point out that few of these are fallacies in the more strict academic definition. For a few of those (such as false equivalence and false cause), you should check out this little article by Alastair Cooke.

1. People love brands

Kantar tells us that 'when we measure instinctive emotional preference for brands on a scale from strong disliking to strong liking, we find 90% of brands fall in the slightly positive range. Normal people don’t tend to love brands, they just quite like them.'

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We may act as if we love brands, but often it's because we use them as signifiers. The most successful brands can effectively stand for a whole product category, or even an entire lifestyle, and consumers take advantage of that.

But it's not love. We are more likely to buy the airline ticket that flies our route, the jeans that fit us best, the drink with the best taste. Does it mean we love the brand? No. Merely the product.

In an article in Pacific Standard, Alana Massey takes this further, arguing that though brands on social media can make consumers feel loved, it is an obviously insincere interaction.

Alana writes, 'Brands may be more personified than ever, but it is in such a one-dimensional and transparently insincere way that we should resist attaching to them. If we trust a company to consistently make good pants, we should reward them by buying their pants, not by surrendering our personal data because they’ve earned some modicum of trust by delivering a decent product.'

To be blunt, if Tony the Tiger turns up at your house as part of a marketing stunt, will you buy Frosties for the rest of your life? No. You might do so because you are a fan of extremely sugary breakfast cereal though.

For more evidence of brand contempt, see #WalkersWave, BoatyMcBoatface, #McDStories, or any other hijacked social media campaign.

2. TV is dying

One example of a proper fallacy is the false dichotomy. The idea that we can only have one thing or the other.

It is employed constantly as regards TV and the internet. How many graphs have you seen comparing online ad spend to TV ad spend? How many opinion pieces declaring TV is dead? How many marketers claiming kids don't watch TV?

The stats say all we need to know about the supposed death of TV.

Though in 2015, according to Ofcom, youngsters aged 5-15 spent longer online than watching TV each week, TV still takes up a big chunk of time. Weekly TV viewing for children totalled 13 hours 36 minutes.

And in the UK population as a whole, just look at the chart below. Not exactly the most alarming chart I've ever seen.

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Mark Ritson should have the last word on this fallacy – he tackles it regularly and did so recently in Marketing Week, attacking Adidas's new CEO Kasper Rorsted for the following comments to CNBC:


It’s clear that the younger consumer engages with us predominately over the mobile device.

Digital engagement is key for us; you don’t see any TV advertising anymore. All of our engagement with the consumer is through digital media.


Ritson points out that media choice should come downstream of strategising. He writes, 'Very simply, a company like Adidas should start each year with an open mind and no general preference for any medium over any other. The minute a company starts ring-fencing a medium-specific budget or announcing that it is “digital first”, it inherently makes a mockery of its own strategic foundations and will almost certainly invest its marketing budget in a sub-optimal way.'

TV is not dead.

3. People care less and less about privacy

Buried within the Information Commissioner's Office's PDF on big data, AI, machine learning and data protection is a very robust opposition to the fallacy that young people in particular are happy to share personal information with gay abandon.

Though a DMA survey found that the percentage of people 'not concerned' about sharing data increased from 16% to 22% between 2012 and 2015, context is all important. What information is requested? What will it be used for? How far does the person trust the organisation?

Indeed, the ICO cites other studies that show privacy of personal data is still a top issue, and only slightly less important to younger age groups.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the debate is what many users see as an 'unconscionable contract' – the idea that web tracking is so prevalent, users have no choice but to allow their data to be used in order to navigate the web at all. Resignation rather than indifference.

A study that discusses this relationship also goes as far as refuting the idea that users are consciously engaging in trading personal data for benefits (e.g. discounts). It concludes a majority of Americans believe it is futile to try to control what companies can learn about them.

With GDPR is less than a year away (affecting organisations in the EU and those that deal with EU-based users), suddenly those that believe in the fallacy of privacy's trivialisation may have the rug pulled out from under them. The regulations will make sure that users are better informed than ever, and can request, amend or delete their data, or even port it to another organisation.

As digital technology matures, it is clear that cold calling, spam and hacking have become respectively big nuisances and a threat to users, and the judicial use of personal data is back on the user agenda.

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4. Wastage is bad, targeting is good

In my last article on digital fallacies I touched on the problems with ever more targeted online advertising, but want to broaden the point to look at all perceived wastage.

The reality is that if your campaigns are good, highly creative and cut through, then what's the use in tightly controlling who sees them? Wouldn't wide reach be a good thing?

Binet and Field's research for the IPA, titled 'The Long and the Short of It' addresses this point – targeting loyal customers is not enough.

Here are just some of the key findings:

  • Long-term investment in advertising delivers double the profit of a short-term approach.
  • Brands which target the whole market achieve three times as many large business effects than those that focus on existing customers.
  • TV advertising remains the most effective way to build a brand and creates larger business effects than other forms of advertising.
  • Advertisers need to ensure their campaigns strike the right balance between long-term investment in brand building using mass media, and short-term, direct methods that stimulate sales.

Remember, consumers are always going to be more complex and nuanced creatures than our data describes them to be. And behavioural targeting will never be 100% effective either. Concentrating too much on targeting and reducing wastage is an excuse for the creatives to churn out crap stuff.

I've included this quote before, but Ad Contrarian summarises it so beautifully, as follows:

"Small picture marketers know a lot of little things...They create tightly focused advertising and put it in front of a select number of precisely targeted individuals.

"On the other hand, big picture marketers know a few big things...They work very hard to produce widely appealing materials and put them everywhere. Then they stand back and let probability do the work.

"Why have all the world's leading brands been built by big picture marketers? Because the more you study data, the more you realize that data is just the residue of probability."

5. 'Digital marketing' is an obsolete phrase

Mark Ritson believes so. He says the strategic side of marketing is unchanged and that digital marketing is simply a new set of tools.

To some extent, Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein agrees with him that digital marketing is tactical, but that we shouldn't undervalue a new set of tactics that can bring us success quicker.

Crucially, Friedlein also believes that marketing has changed, 'specifically in a widened remit that encompasses ownership of the customer experience and thereby the product or service itself in some cases.'

For all the opinion pieces about the death of digital marketing, the demand for digital skills is growing and digital teams are subsuming others.

Read Friedlein's full article on the debate in Marketing Week.

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