The trailer for the new Call of Duty game, Advanced Warfare, says it is expected to get a “mature” rating. If an Xbox shooting game is mature, what?s immature?

A film I saw recently warned upfront that it contained sex, violence and ” mature themes”. So sex and violence are no longer considered mature, but shoot ’em up games are. What exactly are mature themes? Whether to buy an annuity with your pension pot? Yoga? There’s a risk here of everyone being disappointed.

We all know it’s foolish to overpromise and under-deliver. Any business gain through weasly words or false promises is only short term, and can come with a harmful backlash. So why do people and brands keep doing it? Often this is because incentives are aligned with the wrong things – signing new customers rather than retaining overall revenue is a common one that leads people astray. The longer they get away with it, the greater the shame and the cost when it is finally revealed. Financial misselling practices are the proof. The financial hit is huge, even if they appear shameless.

I once stayed in a hotel in the west country whose promotional photos turned out to have been taken at another hotel entirely. In the flesh, its guest rooms bore no resemblance to those in the brochure. Shortly after my visit, a well-known consumer affairs publication picked up on it, as did the local trading standards people, so they didn’t get away with it. This was a particularly blatant misrepresentation, being objectively false, so it was easy to challenge. But there is a widespread view that the marketing industry exists to sweet talk people into things they don’t really want, and to spin products and services to make them deceptively appealing.

Most advertising is not downright dishonest, or even deliberately misleading. Some of it is just plain pointless. A large building society is currently communicating its new logo with outbound email that encourages you to go to the website for more information. There you will find much the same information that’s in the email. They say that they “know it’s important to respond to how the world is changing, to evolve so that we can continually offer great service and value. That’s why, after speaking to lots of customers, we’ve decided to change the way we look.” Err, that’s it. No, there’s no change in the service, no promised change in their behaviour, not even news about opening times. Just the logo. Well done chaps. All risk of over-promising successfully avoided. Customers only mildly irritated.

There are times of course when businesses have to deliver bad news to their customers – price rises, or withdrawal of certain features or benefits. It’s widely accepted that advertising messages need to be seen several times before they are absorbed. By contrast, the good thing about bad news is you usually only have to deliver it once. That’s provided people recognise it for what it is. Pretending bad news isn’t really bad is a waste of money. If they have to work it out for themselves, it’s only going to be more annoying. When a brand slips something past me, and then tells me later that I have been told, I don’t think, Fair dos I think, You b******s. Don’t you? If there is something unpalatable to be said, my strong advice is, don’t sugar-coat it. If you want people to get the message, tell it straight, and let them decide.

Incidentally, I watched the film and still don’t know what the mature themes were. Perhaps I need to ask my teenage children to tell me.


More comment on brand and marketing communications:

Let me entertain you

Yes there’s a crisis in brand trust but please, don’t try to be nice.

Let’s hear it for the ads we love to hate

Comment | August 2014