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Does “Likability” Create Advertising That Consumers Hate?

Posted by Doug Garnett April - 13 - 2011 - Wednesday

Long ago studies began to suggest that advertising tends to be more effective when it’s “likable”. And very quickly, likability became an advertising absolute.

So disagreeing with the concept of likability would seem to be advertising death. But I do disagree — with today’s interpretation. Because here in 2010, the way agencies have decided to make likable advertising creates advertising that consumers hate.

The Beginning of Likability. This concept starts from the simple truth that people want to like the people they buy products from. Since advertising reflects your brand, product, and the people behind it, it makes fundamental sense that likable advertising is more effective than unlikable advertising. Statistical studies confirm this as discussed by Dr. Bryon Sharp in his new book “How Brands Grow”.

Expanding our sense of likability, Dr. Sharp explains that “…the gentle, if complex, emotional reaction of liking increased sales effectiveness of advertising because it encouraged consumers to pay a little more attention.” (p. 204)

Likability Turns Ugly. Unfortunately, from these common sense and statistically proven beginnings, the idea of likability has mutated like the monster rising from the swamp.

The problem starts with agencies and creative teams who make likability their top goal. I’ve watched research teams investigate whether consumers like advertising while ignoring whether consumers find what the ad says to be powerful or meaningful.

Today, the ad business concept of likability goes even further. Far too many agencies seek primarily to create consumer passion about the advertising creative itself and ignore the brand or product.

And, so, our advertising swamp monster has severed its connection with reality in order to focus its energy on creating what portfolio schools/art institutes consider “entertainment”.

Yikes. Advertising needs to be likable so that people retain our messages better. But that means, first and foremost, that we need messages. Only then can you focus on likability (among other also critically important factors).

Then Social Media Blows it Out of Control. I won’t dwell on the absurdities of most corporate sponsored social media. Agencies love this new playground whether it benefits their clients or not. But I will note, as I’ve said before, most consumers don’t want to be your friend. And getting the advertising value from likability doesn’t happen because Facebook ether-friends “like” your brand or product.

Is Modern Advertising Likable? No – Consumers Hate a Lot of It. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to consumers talk about their feelings about advertising. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time digging into quantitative research about what consumers retain from advertising.

Some ads which agencies consider highly creative are truly enjoyed by consumers. More often, consumers struggle to recall the brand and/or product that is being advertised, are turned off by meaningless edginess, rebel at self-satisfied “high art”, and become frustrated that advertisers interrupt their media with meaningless drivel. The problem with modern advertising isn’t that it interrupts us, but that it doesn’t deliver meaning.

Understanding Likability in a Human Way. Let’s consider buying a car. I think it’s obvious that you’re more likely to buy a car from someone you like than from someone you dis-like. But also, most people are unlikely to buy a car from their best friend or someone who is “just like them”. Most people want to buy from someone who has solid knowledge about the type of car they’re considering.

So, no matter how much you may like the salesman, you’ll hesitate to sign a 5 year loan on a $40,000 purchase if the salesman can’t tell you why it’s a good car for your needs or explain the deal on the loan.

This suggests that likability isn’t broadly determined, but must be uniquely considered within the product or brand sphere being advertised.

Question is: Does Your Work Respect Humanity? The next time your agency is talking about likability, sit back on the fringes of the conversation and listen – really listen – to what’s being said.

Hopefully, you’ll discover a very human sense, respectful of the consumer’s true need for the product. Grab this sense and encourage it. Because your advertising can really only become likable when you understand the human needs of your consumers and explain to them the things you offer to meet those needs. And it’s even better when you do this in likable and entertaining ways.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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