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Sincerity Trails Memorability in Ads

When companies launch multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, they pray the message will get noticed and remembered in today's cluttered media marketplace.

But a more vital concern should be whether people believe the message is honest. According to the new Reputation Quotient survey, companies producing some of the most memorable ads of the past year didn't come across as very sincere.

Most of the top-ranked companies for advertising recall in the U.S., including McDonald's Corp., Ford Motor Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Nike Inc., and General Motors Corp. -- placed significantly lower when respondents rated them for communicating with sincerity.

Regarding ads for Nike, for example, one survey respondent complained that the company uses "minority athletes to sell to the minority youth of today, most of whom cannot comfortably afford Nike products."

Only Coca-Cola Co. and Dell Inc. were ranked as two of the 10 companies with the most memorable campaigns and the greatest sincerity in their corporate communications.

One respondent said some Coke commercials "make me laugh and cry," while others fondly recalled the company's polar-bear ads. As for Dell, the computer marketer's slogans have registered strongly with people who especially remember the line, "Dude, you're getting a Dell."

The outcome was much the same in Europe, where such companies as McDonald's and telecommunications firms produced memorable ads, but didn't score nearly as well for sincerity. Commenting on McDonald's commercials, a British respondent said: "The adverts on TV where they say 'I'm lovin' it' stand out. But apart from children, I don't know anyone who claims to love McDonald's."

When Harris Interactive Inc. analyzed the survey data, it found little correlation overall between advertising recall and a strong corporate reputation. In fact, there was even a negative correlation in the U.K. and Germany. But Harris determined that sincerity correlates strongly with a high reputation score.

The survey also delivers bad news to companies that have tried to use advertising to repair or at least limit reputation damage. Boeing Co. and Halliburton Co. ran ads this year giving their side of the controversies dogging their companies, and Halliburton also created sentimental ads showing its services to the troops overseas. Meanwhile, scandal-tarred Tyco International Ltd. created a new image campaign describing the positive impact of its businesses on people's lives.

But judging from the survey findings, they aren't having much success. Among the 60 companies in the U.S. study, all three ranked in the bottom five for advertising recall. More important, they also received relatively low marks for sincerity.

Commenting on Halliburton, a respondent complained that the company was trying to "pull the heart strings of Americans with a commercial about providing phone service to the troops in Iraq when at the same time you are ripping the military off."

For its part, Halliburton denies that it overcharged the government and contends that there is simply a "billing disagreement."


Ronald Alsop, The Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2004

Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.