A Q&A with ad contrarian Bob Hoffman

With the world of advertising in constant flux, one voice has remained a steadfast advocate of skepticism and critical thinking. Enter Bob Hoffman, a renowned advertising contrarian with a knack for exposing the fallacies that can surround the industry. Following his recent visit to New Zealand, where he was hosted by ThinkTV, we delve into the mind of Bob with this exclusive Q&A, to unravel the complexities that surround the advertising world.

With the rise of digital advertising and the vast amounts of data available, has your skepticism evolved or shifted in any way over the years? If so, how?

My skepticism has risen. The reason is simple. As digital advertising has risen, the adtech industry and advertisers deeply invested in it have more to lose than ever. Revelations of fraud and misinterpretation or misuse of data have created significant jeopardy for those who sell it and those who buy it. If the advertising industry were truly interested in disarming the skepticism around the validity of the reports we get from the adtech industry, they would long ago have created a commission of disinterested experts to examine the ecosystem and report on the accuracy and credibility of programmatic advertising.

Are there any particular advertising campaigns or trends that you believe have perpetuated the skepticism towards the industry? Why do you think they have had such an effect?

The primary advertising trends that perpetuate skepticism toward advertising are “interactivity” and “personalisation.” Interactivity and personalisation were supposed to make advertising more relevant, more appealing, and more engaging. They have had the exact opposite effect. According to recent research advertising has become more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided. By a factor of about 1,000 to one consumers use interactivity to scroll or click away from advertising rather than into it. The more we claim that interactivity and personalisation make advertising more relevant and more likable, the more we will perpetuate the already substantial skepticism toward our industry.

How do you think the advertising industry should respond to growing concerns around privacy and data protection, especially in the context of personalised advertising?

Very simply. If the advertising industry were truly concerned about privacy they would ban tracking. Advertisers have been enormously successful for decades developing successful advertising targets without spying on individuals (tracking). It is very clear that surveillance is not necessary for targeting models to be successful. But advertisers do not have the self-restraint or maturity to implement such a policy, so it will be up to regulators to protect citizens and democratic institutions from the dangerous practices of the marketing and advertising industry. 

Some argue that advertising fuels consumerism and materialism. What are your thoughts on this as we face growing environmental issues caused by overconsumption? How do you believe advertising impacts society as a whole in light of this?

Advertising has its upsides and its downsides. Asserting that it contributes to consumerism is another way of saying that it stimulates economic activity. Historically I think it is pretty clear that governments that banned or severely restricted advertising suffered economically. This is not good for citizens striving for economic self-sufficiency, especially in developing countries. If we are to live in free and democratic societies we have to take the good with the bad. In a free society businesses are free to advertise. One of the downsides may be materialism. But do we have evidence that societies that try to be free of “materialism” are more desirable? It seems to me that the world’s most “spiritual” governments — those ruled by so-called  “spiritual leaders” — are some of the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and least desirable governments in the world. 

As to solving the problem of environmental destruction, I am afraid it is a problem far beyond the intellectual capacity of an advertising guy. Limiting economic growth may be a technically astute solution, but I don’t believe it is politically viable.  Nobody wants to get poorer. Thus far, all worldwide governmental initiatives have only had the effect of slowing the rate of environmental destruction, not the absolute amount of it. If we are to solve this existential problem we’d be foolish to think that politics will do it. We desperately need technological breakthroughs.

What arguments do you encounter from those championing the effectiveness of advertising? And how do you respond?

There are no guarantees in advertising — there are just likelihoods and probabilities. Advertising effectiveness is massively contingent. Some advertising is very effective, some is not effective at all. Some of the variables are strategy and media choices. However, the most critical aspect, in my opinion, is the creative quality of the advertising. Highly creative advertising is far more likely to be effective and can be successful in any medium. Stupid or mundane advertising is more likely to be ineffective. In any medium you choose, and any strategy you implement, the likelihood of success is far greater if the creative quality of the advertising is exceptional.

To watch Bob Hoffman’s keynote presentation ‘Advertising’s Decade of Delusion’ courtesy of ThinkTV click here.

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