What Makes Bad Advertising So Bad? It’s Not Believable

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What Makes Bad Advertising So Bad? It’s Not Believable

When an advertising campaign is so bad it makes you groan out loud, there’s usually a simple reason: It’s not believable.

The worst offenders are campaigns that attempt to portray real-life situations. The dialogue often is so forced or the setup so phony that your only reaction is to roll your eyes and think, “Yeah, right.”

But lack of believability in advertising is more than annoying. It’s a waste of marketing resources.

Here are two ways to achieve believability in your advertising and two examples of smart marketers, including one in Northeast Ohio, who are doing it right.

Why Believability Matters

Whether you’re marketing to businesses or consumers, prospects have to trust you to buy your products. In order to trust you, they have to believe that what you tell them is true. That’s why believability is essential for effective advertising.

A believable ad campaign is authentic. It feels so real the audience can picture themselves in the situation. There’s a genuine, emotional connection between the advertiser and the audience. The viewer’s reaction is, “Yes, I know what that’s like. That’s just how I feel.”

A message that doesn’t ring true with the audience has the opposite effect. The lack of authenticity annoys and distracts the audience. It takes the focus off the product and makes the audience doubt the advertiser’s veracity. The reaction? A skeptical “Yeah, right.”

Parody and fantasy are different, because the audience doesn’t expect reality. They get it that the marketer is trying to make a point by gross exaggeration. No one believes the eTrade babies are actually speaking like adults about the stock market.

But when an ad isn’t a parody but a failed attempt at creating a real-life scenario, the marketer might as well throw their ad dollars in the trash.

A Case in Point: State Farm

The State Farm television campaign, for example, stars an overly jolly spokesman strolling around chatting about State Farm. In one groaner, he’s talking to the camera with Carrie, a State Farm representative. We’re supposed to believe they know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences. But their camaraderie is phony, she can’t get a word in edgewise, and he’s rude.  In fact, he’s so unpopular there’s an “I Hate the State Farm Guy” Facebook page with 2,500 members.

In other spots in this campaign, strangers passing by just happen to appear at the right moment to add their two cents to the spokesman’s comments. Not only are these situations obviously contrived, but even the ad backdrops (such as a newsstand filled with made-up magazine titles like “Tempo” and “Woman”) are unbelievable.

And that’s just one marketer. Think about the corny banter around the table in Olive Garden ads or the deeply thoughtful heart attack patients in Lipitor ads. None of these situations or people seem real, even though, in the case of Lipitor, they are.

Tips for a Smart Marketing Strategy

So how do you create advertising campaigns with believability and authenticity? Two ways:

1. Get to know your customers so well that you hear their real dialogue.

You need to understand how people truly feel and what they experience when they interact with your product. It’s not enough to watch a focus group through a one-way mirror. Your creative team needs empathy and sharp listening skills to perceive real emotion and expressions of feeling that can be turned into authentic dialogue.

Contrast this spot from Physicians Mutual Insurance, for example, with the State Farm campaign. The ad captures the subtle but lovable annoyances that emerge when two people live together for a long time. In just seconds, we know this couple is secure in their relationship and their lives, and by inference, that their insurer had something to do with that. You can relate to them; they are real and believable. And you don’t lunge for the remote to change the channel when the ad appears.

2. Use real customers to tell your story as only they can.

Testimonials from real customers are more believable than anything an advertiser can claim in a marketing campaign.  Real words from real people can’t be beat.

Take a look at this brilliant advertising campaign for a Northeast Ohio hospital, Akron Children’s Hospital. These extraordinary vignettes of real patients, real doctors, and real families are deeply emotional and unforgettable.  Hats off to Akron Children’s and its award-winning Cleveland marketing agency, MarcusThomas LLC, for showing how to get authenticity right – and how to use the power of believability in a smart marketing strategy.

  • Craig

    State Farm Guy has one undeniable strength; he can make me change the channel within seconds of hearing his smarmy voice. The Olive Garden Family…if they were any happier, I think their heads would explode.

    Somehow, I feel better knowing that at least 2,500 other people feel the same about State Farm Guy! Thanks for sharing, great post.

    January 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm
  • Luc-Olivier Lafeuille

    When in France we tend to criticize the Americans for their ads very far from reality and always a little bit wrong, phony or artificial, you demonstrate the contrary, proof that the sensitivity extends beyond human, that marketing can be intelligent and coherent .

    I translated your article in the language of Molière so that my countrymen know that you know think in the other side of the Atlantic.

    I will send you the link to the page when it is published.

    February 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm
  • Beth Hallisy

    Great post, Jean. Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for the callout to Akron Children’s Hospital and Marcus Thomas. While I personally was not involved in the campaign, I have to admit I am pretty proud of our internal and client teams for the work they did. I think authenticity requires big-time trust in your offering, your people and the ultimate consumer, so the real credit goes to ACH, the docs and the patients and families for exhibiting that trust and openness. At your invititation, I’m including a link to a case study (
    as well as a NYT article (

    Very cool that we’re also seeing the post in French!

    February 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm
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