Why exaggeration doesn't always work in advertising

By , agencyfaqs! | In | December 24, 2001
While exaggeration is at the core of advertising, many ads try and make brands look bigger and more important than they actually are to the consumer, making the exaggeration hard to digest

"Advertising is legalized lying." - H.G. Wells

Admittedly, not the most flattering of words to describe a thriving, multi-billion-dollar global industry. Notwithstanding the sweeping - and over-exaggerated - nature of Mr. Wells' opinion, there is no denying that exaggeration is the essence of advertising. Not that that is bad. In fact, for the lay consumer, exaggeration is what makes a lot of advertising barely tolerable.

Not always, of course. There are innumerable instances where the exaggeration is actually way off target. Where it gets so blatant, it's quite hard to stomach.

For starters, let's sample some ads that push the limits of acceptable exaggeration. There is this television commercial for greeting card brand Expressions currently on air… The storyline is straightforward: the man-of-the-house is absent, and the rest of the family is missing him sorely. So elderly parents, wife and assorted family members sit mournfully for a group photograph. Doorbell rings and postman delivers an Expressions greeting card from hubby dear. Needless to say, the entire family is suitably ecstatic, smiles get switched on and everyone poses cheerfully before the camera. Honestly, can one card so comprehensively compensate for a near one's absence? And what was so special about that Expressions card, if it's the thought that counts?

Then there is this ad for toothbrush brand Close-up Curve that ran some time ago, and goes like this. A young boy in a supermarket keeps running his hands surreptitiously over the toothbrush whenever there are girls in his near vicinity. The effect on the girls is quite 'electrifying', and has them squirming in surprise (yes, the guy even manages getting one girl's dress strap off her shoulder by ripping open the toothbrush pack!). The pay-off: 'Haathon mein yeh kamal to mooh mein?' Oh, please! There is nothing remotely inspiring about putting a toothbrush into the mouth. And yes, while consumers might fall for things like 'indicator' or 'flexi-grip' or '360-degree brushing', 'excitement in a toothbrush' is a fairly far-fetched.

Another classic example of misguided exaggeration is a recent ad for one of those salt brands. The ad has this little girl talking about 'safed jadoo' as mummy fondly looks on. After rendering her 20-second spiel, the kid dips her hand into the jar of salt and licks her fingers appreciatively. Now ask yourself, in real life, how many kids are so totally enamoured with salt?

The ad for Sargam Tea is another. Father is not prepared to send his young daughter to medical college in a faraway city. Daughter is disappointed, but trust the bhabi to offer father-in-law a nice cuppa. Father-in-law is mighty pleased, and bhabi gets him to send daughter to medical college. The cup that cheers… stretched to impossible limits. There are many more examples. AllScapes (parents forbid daughter from meeting boyfriend/girl paints on wall), Calcium Sandoz (kid hurts karate master/mother is thrilled), Henkel's Mr. White (girl doesn't allow grandfather to play cricket as his whites aren't white enough!)…

The problem with all these ads is that they try and make the brands look bigger and more important than they actually are to the consumer. "Every brand has only that much of a role in the target consumer's life," says Chax (K.S. Chakravarthy), director, Persistence of Vision. "The problem starts when marketers want their brands to play a larger-than-life part in the lives of consumers. That's when the consumer turns around and dismisses it." Anand Halve of chlorophyll agrees. "The danger area for marketers and agencies is determining where the brand figures in the consumer's life. The biggest fallacy is assuming your product is the centerpiece of her life. It isn't."

Ironically, some of the best ads of all time - both Indian and international - too hinge on huge exaggeration. Take Liril's path-breaking 'girl under the waterfall', or the Fevicol and Fevikwik ads. This year's Cannes Grand Prix-winning campaign for Fox Sports is pure hyperbole, for that matter.

So the point is, how much exaggeration is fine? Why does the unbelievably absurd (Fevicol, for instance) click, while others fall flat? When do exaggerated claims put the consumer on guard? And are there any limits to exaggeration?

"Ads that catch the consumer's attention are those that portray real-life situations," feels S. Swaminathan, senior vice-president, iContract. "Even if it is exaggerated, it has to be in the realm of real life. Take the ad we made for Temptations. Inside every one of us is a kid that doesn't want to share things that it likes. So while we may not eat chocolates on the sly, people can associate with the ad. Yes, it's an exaggeration, but one that is rooted in real life."

Chax thinks along similar lines. "If you take an insight which is correct, you can exaggerate it as far as possible. Take the film I made for Kissan Fruit Kick Jam. Now everyone knows that kids don't eat breakfast, that they love jam, and that mothers try very hard to feed kids nutritious stuff. So the sight of the mother chasing the son all over the place, plate in hand, went down perfectly well, although it was an exaggeration."

But there is nothing "real life" about the Fevicol ads. Swaminathan admits as much, adding, "Here, the exaggeration stays in the realm of the brand benefit or proposition. If it does, consumers will accept twists in the communication. I think the recent ad for Braun Silk Epilator ('butterfly') was brilliant in the way it demonstrated smooth legs. A very exaggerated ad, but there was a strong link to the proposition (makes legs silky smooth) which was in turn linked to a strong consumer need. So the proposition has to be believable. I do not believe there is any 'jadoo' in salt."

The fact that exaggeration has to be relevant to the brand benefit emerges clearly. "If you want to exaggerate, do so only as far as the brand proposition and product category permit," opines Halve. "The 'Pied Piper' commercial for Axe is stretched, but consumers are willing to go with the gag because the core brand proposition is attractiveness to the opposite sex, and the product category allows happy exaggeration." Comparing the Expressions ad to an Archies ad, he adds, "There was this ad for Archies that showed a woman being angry with her husband because he had forgotten their anniversary. Now that's not a great ad either, but at least it did not cross the impermissible. It simply showed the husband making up to his wife. The Expressions ad has not managed leveraging the emotion of viraha (longing) - if that is the idea."

One of the biggest problems that all ads face is a growing amount of consumer suspicion vis-à-vis ads. And 'serious' exaggeration isn't helping any. "By all means, exaggerate on the human aspects of the advertising," urges Chax. "But don't base it on something like 'this brand can change your life.' Some of the world's best ads start with the premise that the brand is insignificant to the consumer, so let's make a fun story that will be remembered. All soaps wash, all beers refresh. What Heineken did was exaggerate by saying '…refreshes those parts other beers don't' and making something that was fun and memorable."

"Consumers are becoming more and more cynical, so there has to be a limit to how far one can go," feels Swaminathan. "You can't make promises she doesn't think you can fulfill." By that logic, making an exaggeration about a proposition that the consumer doesn't fully believe in can be counterproductive. For instance, while chocolates do provide the body energy, in India, consumers don't view chocolates as 'energizers'. So 5-Star's exaggeration of a guy running up 18 floors in time to catch his girlfriend coming out of a lift doesn't necessarily wash.

Ultimately, it boils down to marketers trying to be too serious - and trying too hard to give consumers a good reason-to-buy. "You have to be realistic in your 'enhancement'," as Halve puts it. "If it's not appropriate, it'll end up being incredible, irrelevant and downright stupid in the consumer's mind." Chax is more brutal when he says, "A marketer's need for self-importance should not be shoved down the consumer's throat. She's very clear about where you fit in her life, so begin from there."

© 2001 agencyfaqs!