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January 16, 2019

Marketing medicine


What images are soon to fill our world?

I have just been looking at some interesting statistics about media in East Africa. This kind of information can get a bit turgid, so I will limit myself to some ‘Gee Whiz’ figures I read. TV penetration should be well ahead of 51 per cent of households, radio stations have multiplied so fast that even some of the highest rated stations are delivering single digit ratings at certain times of day. Billboard formats are set to get bigger, as our highways get bigger. And print media inflation still continues to rocket in spite of little real growth in audiences. Digital advertising continues to grow as a communications channel as data costs and handsets/tablet get cheaper. This news all came from a digital agency called Zahara, so I was not surprised that they banged the drum about digital.

Overall this continues to show how radically the marketplace is changing, and how much harder it is for brand managers to make the right decisions about channels. But that is not my purpose in writing today.

You see, as a communicator, I am much more interested in content. And by that I mean the content that consumers will receive. Because there is a big difference in advertising between what advertisers say, and what consumers receive. And it is a difference that we marketers need to get better at managing.

We have all seen examples of poor advertising. The quarter page press ad that attempts to make twenty copy points. The billboard that features the brand name or logo five times and still insists on having the office phone numbers at the bottom. The TV commercial that looks so cheap it actually devalues the brand it is trying to promote.

You see, no brand manager should be proud that they have filled every centimetre of space. Or shown every variant of the product pack. Or given six ways to contact the company. They should feel worried. Simply because no-one will see, much less retain all that information. People read what interests them, and retain a small percentage of it.

If you want them to retain more then you have to be able to do two things. One, make the message relevant to them. ‘Them’, being a target audience, which is a carefully selected part of the population. ‘Everyone ‘ is not a target audience.

Two, make your message relevant to them. Either in what your product offers, or how it offers it. Or if you want to hit the jackpot - both.

Marketers face many challenges in selecting and addressing specific target audiences. In my view most of those challenges exist within the senior management of the companies they serve. This may surprise you, as senior management should demand that their marketing activities are a focussed and impactful as possible. So in internal company discussions you hear comments like: ‘ yes the youth is important, but we must risk not alienating our existing middle aged customers.’

Then when it comes to the messaging themselves, senior managers can be very good at dumbing down the advertising. Both in the language used, and in the imagery. Very often they like their advertising to reflect reality, or their desired reality. The smiling family gathered around the meal table. The proud mum with her sparkling loo.

But is that really what people want to see? I doubt it, and so I doubt whether they see it at all. And that is an expensive problem.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that regional marketers continue to use hackneyed images of grinning consumers as the centrepiece of all visual communication. You must have noticed this, for it has been the paradigm in here for over 50 years.

If by some miracle you have not tried it for your brand yet, here is how you do it.  You book a photographer; and you gather up one or two, or sometimes a whole family of healthy looking consumers. You clean them up and dress them in normal clothes. Then, you get them to hold your product, or stand next to it, or sit under it. Then comes the clever bit – you make them grin.

Not smile wistfully, not laugh uproariously. Just grin a hideous rictus. Grin and hold up the product.

Now, you may think that people exposed to this kind of communication are bound to think: ‘Look at them. They are happy with Brand X.’ Sadly, most people do not think anything when they see this kind of communication, because it has become part of the landscape. If it were inside your house you would call it wallpaper.

According to David B. Givens, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, the face is every human’s visual trademark, a powerful expression of attitudes, opinions, and moods that defines our identity and enables us to communicate—and connect—without words.

So as channels multiply, the challenge to connect becomes harder. So please, let’s have fewer cheesy grins.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising. Most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international consultancy that helps organisations deliver their brands and strategies through their people.


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