I have recently read thousands of words written by marketing and advertising people, as part of a judging panel for some business awards. Here are a few of the modest claims I have encountered.

“We changed the law”. This is a popular one. A very large charity said their online petition led to a change in a different law. That’s some going for a petition that collected fewer signatures than, say, the petition against a puppy farm in Hull – I don’t think that one has worked yet, and they had ten times as many supporters – and only a tiny fraction of the petition to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson.

“We changed the law”. A small charity claimed their one-off wrap around a popular women’s monthly magazine had been the catalyst for the change. It was a really neat idea, well-executed, so maybe? They did mention that there were a few other things going on as well.

“We forced Sepp Blatter out.” This was from a lesser-known sportswear brand. It may have been tongue in cheek but it was hard to tell from the entry.

“We changed attitudes to gay people in sport.” Have they changed? I’d have to put that one along with the Reinstate Jeremy petition – we’re still waiting to see it.

“We changed people’s minds on who to vote for.” Somebody did some posters, plus a few press and online display ads. They were good. But, as a fellow judge said, did they really cause change, or were they just standing next to it when it happened?

Most of these claims came from strong, well-written entries describing really excellent work by very capable agencies on behalf of their clients. Some of them may even be award-winners. But it won’t be because of their overblown claims. It will be in spite of them.

This is relevant in the day job. As judges we tried to see past the puffery in order to be fair to everyone, inflated claims or not. As consumers, we don’t have to bother.

Nowadays, advertising has to be enjoyable first, to earn attention and have the opportunity to be informative. Have you noticed that when Don and Peggy in Mad Men are developing creative ideas, they never talk about claims? Don’s big ideas, connecting with people’s dreams and feelings as they invariably do, make better entertainment, sure. But I think they can build better brands too.

I’m still fully committed to the old model of “Problem – Solution – Reason to believe” as a way to define a relevant value proposition, but it’s no way to make an advertisement, especially when it’s barely credible. Award entries are really just long-form advertisements for somebody’s work. Most judges slightly dread the hours of preparation involved in assessing two or three dozen entries. I would love to read a few entries where the writer has thought about the needs of the reader, and acted accordingly. Then I’ll know they are really good at their jobs.

Comment | August 2015