Advertising is No Cure for Incompetence
by Chad Rueffert

There’s an old maxim that says “Advertising a bad product will only help you go out of business faster.”  There’s another truism from advertising great David Ogilvy that’s almost as important:  “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.”

The business world is full of deceptive advertising.  Sure, Super Sugar Smacks are “part” of a complete, healthy breakfast.  But only when you include some actually healthy food like milk, fruit and grains.  The breakfast would be complete and healthy without the sugary cereal.  Finding a way to spin a negative into a positive is a special talent and much desired among copywriters and creative directors. 

But if you’re spinning in your advertising, don’t kid yourself into believing that you’ve fooled your consumer, or will be able to for any length of time.  Every grocery buyer now knows that sugary cereal isn’t good for their kids.  They may buy it anyway, but for different reasons.

You CAN fool consumers once.  And if you’re in business to make a quick buck on the backs of gullible buyers, that may be a viable (if despicable) strategy.  You see it everyday in infomercials for diet pills, exercise machines, face creams, etc.  But once a consumer has discovered that the wrinkles don’t really disappear in seconds and the fat doesn’t just melt away, they will never buy from you again.

I understand the fly-by-night deceptive advertisers.  They’re in it for the easy money and not concerned with the long term.  What I don’t understand is when otherwise reputable organizations convince themselves that they can lie to their consumers. 

Kentucky Fried Chicken is a great recent example.  Playing on the low-carbohydrate diet phenomenon, KFC tried (for a short while) to convince consumers that fried chicken was actually healthy.  Of course, you had to peel the skin off the chicken and limit yourself to two pieces from that huge bucket, but who cares when you can be on the fried chicken diet?  No one bought it.  Why?  Because we’re not morons.

Telephone company Qwest (now CenturyLink) is shining example of trying to use advertising to cover for incompetence and running the risk of putting themselves out of business by advertising a bad product.  Their recent corporate tagline is “Spirit of Service.”  They’ve been running ads where excited people rush to the phone in the hopes of an unsolicited call from their phone company.  And yet if you talk to anyone who has tried to add, move or change their Qwest telephone service, you’ll hear horror stories of incompetence and disregard for customers.  My own experience is still going on as we speak and I have a list of 16 different Qwest “customer service” representatives who have made mistakes, failed to return phone calls, and in some cases even outright lied.  Eight weeks and sixteen people to move one small business office across town.  To top it off, I got a telemarketer call yesterday encouraging me to switch back to Qwest.  ‘I’m trying!” I said and hung up the phone.  Anything else I might have said would only have been obscene.

I understand why Qwest can’t use “The Spirit of Incompetence” as their tagline.  But what they don’t seem to understand is that if you make a claim, you’d better be able to back it up.  Otherwise it’s like a slap in the face every time someone like me sees one of their ads.  Qwest should stick to advertising products and prices, because in that arena they are difficult to compete with.  But until they actually do have a “Spirit of Service”, they should stop the spin.  Qwest convinced me to switch back with a never-ending barrage of direct mail that promised to save me money.  But my experience was so horrible that I’ll dump Qwest at my first opportunity and never return.  The moral of that story?  Advertising a bad product will only help you go out of business faster. 

Most businesses have no desire to spin, no desire to lie, and no desire to sell a bad product to their customers.  But it’s easy to fall into the trap of misrepresenting exactly who you are and what you sell.  If you sell a product that is a lower quality than your competition, then you’re advertising should be focused on the lower price.  Don’t try to convince your buyers they’ll get better quality, because they’ll see the lie for what it is the first time they use the product.  They’ll know you lied to them and may never trust you again. But some consumers are willing to trade quality for price, and that is your target market.  Don’t be ashamed at your product’s lower quality – be proud of it’s better price!  Sugary breakfast cereals should advertise that kids love the taste.  KFC should advertise their baked chicken if they want to tout healthy foods.  Qwest should take all their advertising budget and use it to improve their product and employee training so they can take care of the customers they already have.  No matter how good your spin, the consumer is NOT a moron, and advertising is no cure for incompetence.