The Death of Dishonest Advertising


Co-host of NPR’s “On the Media” and longtime advertising columnist Bob Garfield talks about the dark side of the digital revolution — the squeeze on journalism — and the bright side: “for the first time in human history, commercial interests are rewarded for good conduct and penalized for bad conduct and have no capacity for obscuring which is which.”

A Note from Paul Solman: I first became entranced with Bob Garfield when he was a sometime correspondent on NPR’s “All Things Considered” many years ago. I’ll never forget his audio bungee jump, for example. These days, I listen to him on public radio’s “On the Media,” a weekly newsmagazine produced by WNYC and distributed on more than 300 radio stations by NPR. Bob is also a columnist for MediaPost and the Guardian and a presence on Twitter. And for 25 years, his “Ad Review” column of criticism in Advertising Age was an institution in the marketing industry.

So when I saw that he’d co-authored, with Doug Levy, a new book, “Can’t Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results,” I asked Bob, a self-described curmudgeon, to submit to an interview. He not only agreed to chat, but generously offered to handle both the questions and answers himself. Here’s a transcript of his self-examination.

Bob Garfield’s Question: Bob, as a longtime student of media and marketing — and as an uncommonly attractive, charismatic and decent man — what do you believe is the most significant development over your many years as a journalist on these beats?

Bob Garfield’s Answer: That would be the digital revolution, which is in the midst of decoupling the magnificent symbiosis of mass media and mass marketing that served us well for three-plus centuries. On the one hand, zeroes and ones broke down the vast barriers of entry that gave oligarchs monopolies and democratized both content creation and distribution basically to anybody with a computer … or iPhone. On the other hand, infinite fragmentation of audiences obliterated mass reach, facilitated ad avoidance and created a supply-demand imbalance consigning publishers to poverty. On the other other hand, really: Netflix streaming! Find me the flaw in that.

Bob Garfield: Yours is a rather apocalyptic vision. I read your previous book, “The Chaos Scenario,” and wanted to slash my wrists.

Bob Garfield: You and me both, baby. For those of us who have earned substantial livelihoods in the journalism racket, this is a very depressing time. It’s as if this were the industrial revolution, and we were cobblers. But if you are a consumer of media – especially serious journalism — you have a lot to lose, as well. The number of robust news organizations in the world once numbered in the many thousands. It is now measured in the dozens, on its way to one handful. Distributed journalism, crowd-sourced journalism and citizen spot-news journalism may offer some solace, but nobody makes shoes like a cobbler.

Bob Garfield: And yet your new book, “Can’t Buy Me Like,” is … I don’t wish to put any words in your mouth, Bob, but isn’t your message this time around actually quite … optimistic?

Bob Garfield: Watch who you’re calling optimistic.

Bob Garfield: I know. You have a reputation for curmudgeonliness.

Bob Garfield: I would say “heroic voicing of truth to power.”

Bob Garfield: No doubt you would, yet your new book, “Can’t Buy Me Like,” co-written with Doug Levy, actually uses the phrase “land of milk and honey” to describe the business environment ushered in by digital revolution.

Bob Garfield: There’s a subtitle.

Bob Garfield: Huh?

Bob Garfield: In our book, “Can’t Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results,” Doug and I describe a new commercial epoch. We call it the “Relationship Era,” displacing the top-down dynamics that have till now characterized the entire history of commerce. No longer will brands, businesses — or any institution, for that matter, including the White House, the NFL or the Vatican — get to dictate its messages to a rapt public. The forces of the universe have converged to obliterate the tools of manipulation.

Bob Garfield: Manipulative tools such as advertising?

Bob Garfield: Especially advertising, but not exclusively advertising.

Bob Garfield: What are these sinister forces?

Bob Garfield: Dude, nobody called them sinister … any more than gravity and wind are sinister. They just exist. And are inescapable. There are four such converging forces.

Bob Garfield: Go ahead.

Bob Garfield: The first is audience fragmentation, as we discussed earlier, which has yielded a crippling loss of reach for those hitherto accustomed to reaching huge audiences with one mass-media megaphone. Now the audience is carved up in zillions of tiny slices.

Bob Garfield: Like the Military History Channel and

Bob Garfield: Sure, okay. Whatever. The second force is forced transparency. Business, government and all institutions used to do business from impregnable fortresses. Now they all reside in glass houses. Everything they do — or don’t do — is quickly located online and Google-able in perpetuity. The third force is social media, where all that information is the common currency of social chatter. The public is paying zero attention to your own pronouncements, but they are listening to one another talk about you. And, unlike your advertising and PR, they trust one another. The fourth force is a shift in society. Both longitudinal attitude studies and business results make clear that – for whatever reason — the public cares about institutional values and conduct even more than they care about the intrinsic quality of the goods and services. These are the facts of life in the Relationship Era.

Bob Garfield: Why is this good news?

Bob Garfield: It is good news because for the first time in human history, commercial interests are rewarded for good conduct and penalized for bad conduct and have no capacity for obscuring which is which. It’s like the song says, “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake …”

Bob Garfield: “… He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

Bob Garfield: Right. I wasn’t going to finish the couplet, but nice job.

Bob Garfield: I must say, Bob, and I know this will irritate you, but it sounds a little Pollyanna, especially coming from you.

Bob Garfield: Fair point. But nobody is suggesting that cynicism and venality will be erased from the world. What we are saying is to imagine an era in which brands and politicians and clerics and every other institution is obliged to forge, cultivate and sustain relationships under exactly the rules that govern interpersonal relationships. It’s a place that puts high value of all the things we place high value on in our personal lives: Trust. Sharing. Honesty. Respect. Integrity. Selflessness.

Bob Garfield: What are you describing … Candyland?

Bob Garfield: Have it your way, but we are already in Candyland. In my new book, “Can’t Buy Me Like,” Doug Levy and I cite chapter and verse showing that companies who embrace Relationship Era thinking have lower promotional costs and higher share prices than those trying to advertise their way into the public’s hearts and minds.

Bob Garfield: And those who don’t?

Bob Garfield: You mean like AT&T Wireless and Bank of America and United Airlines and Sears and BP and KFC?

Bob Garfield: Exactly.

Bob Garfield: Guess.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions