Avoiding Marketing’s 7 Deadly Sins

Simon Kemp

Following the success of our exploration into what will determine marketing success in an ever-more-connected world, we’ve joined forces with the lovely folks at the WFA again.

This time, we’re looking at what holds today’s marketers back. We conducted in-depth research into 5 million organic social media mentions relating to adverts and advertising, and identified the ‘7 deadly marketing sins‘ that compromise advertising success.

You can read the overview of our research and get some top tips in the SlideShare embed above (also available here), but read on here to learn more about the mistakes marketers all over the world are making, and how you can avoid the same pitfalls.

The most surprising finding of our research is that people actually have more good things to say about advertising than bad; roughly 60% of all mentions in our huge sample were positive in nature, compared to just 2 in 5 for negative mentions.


Interestingly, almost all of the positive mentions referenced a specific advertisement, which supports some of the complementary research already conducted by the WFA – as Will Gilroy, Director of Communications at the WFA notes:

In our conversations with people, we often find they are indifferent or negative towards ‘advertising’, but can instantly name an ‘ad’ they love.

We were also interested to discover that television advertising triggered more negative mentions than adverts in any other medium:


Breaking things down by gender, men seem to be less tolerant of advertising, with 60% of the negative tweets in our sample coming from men:


But what exactly do those negative tweets say, and what do they tell us about how to avoid being a ‘marketing sinner’?

Sin #1: There Are Too Many ads

Many of the comments we analysed referenced the sheer number of adverts in today’s world, which has led to widespread apathy – and often outright anger – towards advertising in general.

As you can see in some of the examples below, these complaints are often accompanied by a liberal dose of profanity (we had to get our dictionaries out a few times!), which highlights the level of emotion that accompanies these tweets:


[click to enlarge]

So how can advertisers avoid making things worse? Here are three tips for avoiding ad overload:

1. Advertise more selectively: aim for fewer, bigger, better communications, instead of many adverts across multiple channels.

2. Add value, not volume: only advertise when you’ve got something meaningful to add to your audience’s world, and not simply because your brand hasn’t advertised in the past few months (days). FYI, ‘meaningful’ in this instance refers to the audience’s perspective – in other words, will they really care?

3. Bad media make a bad message: just because you can put an advert somewhere, it doesn’t mean you should. Not all awareness is good awareness.


Sin #2: Interruption is Irritation and Corruption

Many of the complaints referenced advertising’s constant interruptions; most of all, people seem to be annoyed and angered by the way advertising distracts them from the things they were trying to do.

Some people did acknowledge advertising’s role in bringing them ‘free’ content, but most don’t seem to think the trade-off is sufficiently balanced:


[click to enlarge]

Want to earn some of the love back? Here are three handy tips:

4. Contextualise your content: if you’re going to interrupt someone’s favourite show or their web research at work, at least make sure your interruptions are relevant. Why not build content around the topic or storyline of the content you’re interrupting, and add to the experience instead of distracting from it?

5. Cut the clutter: do we all really need to show our adverts at primetime? Once upon a time it was the surest way to reach the masses, but with today’s wealth of media channels, there are usually many more targeted – and more relevant – options.

6. Aim for persuasion, not invasion: avoid ad formats and technologies that are clearly designed to interrupt people’s content experience; you may get noticed, but people will resent the intrusion, and you’ll only succeed in inspiring a negative impression.


Sin #3: Poor Quality Creative

Whilst many people enjoy a good advert, it seems that far too many adverts are just “rubbish”: “lame” or confusing storylines, poor or irritating soundtracks, and irritations like sudden volume changes all combine to inspire a significant body of complaints:


[click to enlarge]

The good news is that it’s relatively easy to avoid making these mistakes:

7. Aim for heartstrings, not eyeballs: invest more in creating compelling storylines, instead of throwing all your budgets into media to achieve higher reach. You’ll achieve more by targeting a more selective audience with a compelling advert than you will by reaching everyone with poor-quality or meaningless advertising.

8. Don’t be selfish: invest some time (and money) in understanding what your audience cares about – in life in general, not just in advertising – and build your comms around that, instead of talking endlessly about your brands, your products and your services.

9. Make sound choices: spend more time (and money) getting the soundtrack right. Music comes up again and again as a key factor in ‘likability’, so it’s important to get it right.


Sin #4: Poor Profiling and Targeting

Marketers still don’t seem to understand that the most important part of influencing someone is understanding what they want, and where and when that will be relevant to them.

Our research suggests that many advertisers still suffer from a distinct lack of empathy, as well as a lack of contextual awareness:


[click to enlarge]

So what tips can you offer those colleagues or clients who still don’t get it?

10. Research before you reach: make sure you understand your audience’s wants, needs and desires before you start buying reach and spewing out irrelevant ads. And no: researching your ad doesn’t count; we’re talking about researching the lives, interests, passions and fears of your audience. Treat them as people, not consumers.

11. People, not profiles: when it comes to targeting, use the amazing wealth of new technologies and tools to identify real people, instead of ‘carpet bombing’ by demographics (if you’d like some tips on how to get started with this, click here to read our guide to social listening).

12. Right place, right time: you can still screw up if you’re targeting the right person at the wrong time – as the old adage says, there’s a time and a place for everything, but if you haven’t worked out what those times and places are, you’re still going to irritate and interrupt people. Plan advertising in the same way you’d plan a conversation with your boss about getting a pay rise; there are times when that conversation is going to be appropriate, but there are plenty of occasions when you should probably save the chat for another time.

Bonus tip: moments matter more than media.


Sin #5: Exaggeration, False Claims and Deception

The title above reads like a criminal indictment, and in advertising terms, that’s not far from the mark. Many marketers still aim for the over-sell, but the people they’re trying to persuade aren’t stupid; they see through the hyperbole, and in reality, these exaggerated claims do more harm than good.

Even if these ‘push’ tactics can result in a one-time conversion (sale), the resulting mismatch between people’s expectations and reality usually ensures that those people will never buy the same brand again, and worse, they’ll probably tell others about their disappointment too.

Portraying improbable or inaccurate scenarios doesn’t seem to work either, unless they’re clearly tongue-in-cheek. Our research highlights that ‘feminine care’ advertising is a particularly bad repeat offender here:


[click to enlarge]

So how do advertisers avoid disturbing the peace? Here are three more top tips:

13. Set realistic expectations: avoid over-promising; the subsequent disappointment won’t just result in no repeat sales, it will also likely trigger negative word-of-mouth.

14. Ensure your comms are congruent: make sure your comms align with your brand, and help people to form consistent and appropriate opinions of it.

15. Invest where it matters: if your product doesn’t deliver on the promises you’d like to make, fix the product before you advertise. There are many serial offenders on this one, so make sure the gravity of that point sinks in.


Sin #6: Insensitivity and Selfishness

As we noted earlier, many marketers seem to lack empathy, but sometimes this extends to an apparent ambivalence towards – or even disregard for – important societal or environmental issues.

Our research uncovered a significant body of tweets that called out advertisers’ apparent lack of responsibility when it comes to issues such as health, poverty, education, and the environment:


[click to enlarge]

So how can advertisers address these concerns, and show a bit more compassion?

16. Be socially sensitive: take time to identify and understand the societal, cultural and environmental issues that matter to the communities you’re hoping to engage.

17. Engage with empathy: show consideration and empathy towards your audience’s views and needs (in other words, be nice).

18. Understand motivations to avoid irritations: understanding the reasons why people do the things they do – and why they care about those things in the first place – will help you to engage audiences on their terms, and stop you being seen as merely a ‘machine of consumerism’.


Sin #7: Repetition is Irritation.

Repetition is irritation (see what we did there?).

If a story’s well told, you don’t need to tell it twice, although some people may choose to come back for more if it’s really good.

However, no amount of repeating a bad story makes it good; a lame joke isn’t funny the second time either. Based on the number of tweets we analysed making reference to this, repetition is clearly one of the greatest causes of public frustration with advertising:



[click to enlarge]

So how do we get over our obsession with 3+ frequency, and adopt a more audience-friendly approach? Here are our final 3 tips for this post:

19. Timing is everything: leave a suitable gap before re-showing the same ad to the same person or audience.

20. Evolve, don’t revolve: even better, avoid repetition altogether, by creating multiple variations on a theme. Even something as simple as creating a few variations on a static end-frame can improve people’s tolerance of TV advertising, without requiring silly budgets.

21. Aim for optimal frequency: do you really need to repeat your ad, or will once be enough? If a single TV airing of 1984 was good enough for Apple, there’s a good chance the strategy might work for other brands too.



If you’ve read the full 21 tips above, you’ll probably agree that most of these mistakes are actually quite easy to avoid.

If advertisers employ just a little more common sense, act with a bit more compassion and empathy, and stop being so selfish, it should be easy to rediscover the path to redemption.

So don’t be a sinner, be a winner – be nice, be sociable, and always add value.

Disclosure: please note that this research was conducted as part of a paid engagement.