Marketing is full of fallacious commentary, opinion and vendor sales speak.

Earlier this year I rounded up some digital fallacies, but now I want to focus on marketing more broadly and some of its flawed reasoning.

I should point out that few of these are fallacies in the more strict academic definition. For a few of those (such as false equivalence and false cause), you should check out this little article by Alastair Cooke.

1. People love brands

Kantar tells us that 'when we measure instinctive emotional preference for brands on a scale from strong disliking to strong liking, we find 90% of brands fall in the slightly positive range. Normal people don’t tend to love brands, they just quite like them.'

kantar brand love

We may act as if we love brands, but often it's because we use them as signifiers. The most successful brands can effectively stand for a whole product category, or even an entire lifestyle, and consumers take advantage of that.

But it's not love. We are more likely to buy the airline ticket that flies our route, the jeans that fit us best, the drink with the best taste. Does it mean we love the brand? No. Merely the product.

In an article in Pacific Standard, Alana Massey takes this further, arguing that though brands on social media can make consumers feel loved, it is an obviously insincere interaction.

Alana writes, 'Brands may be more personified than ever, but it is in such a one-dimensional and transparently insincere way that we should resist attaching to them. If we trust a company to consistently make good pants, we should reward them by buying their pants, not by surrendering our personal data because they’ve earned some modicum of trust by delivering a decent product.'

To be blunt, if Tony the Tiger turns up at your house as part of a marketing stunt, will you buy Frosties for the rest of your life? No. You might do so because you are a fan of extremely sugary breakfast cereal though.

For more evidence of brand contempt, see #WalkersWave, BoatyMcBoatface, #McDStories, or any other hijacked social media campaign.

2. TV is dying

One example of a proper fallacy is the false dichotomy. The idea that we can only have one thing or the other.

It is employed constantly as regards TV and the internet. How many graphs have you seen comparing online ad spend to TV ad spend? How many opinion pieces declaring TV is dead? How many marketers claiming kids don't watch TV?

The stats say all we need to know about the supposed death of TV.

Though in 2015, according to Ofcom, youngsters aged 5-15 spent longer online than watching TV each week, TV still takes up a big chunk of time. Weekly TV viewing for children totalled 13 hours 36 minutes.

And in the UK population as a whole, just look at the chart below. Not exactly the most alarming chart I've ever seen.

tv viewing

Mark Ritson should have the last word on this fallacy – he tackles it regularly and did so recently in Marketing Week, attacking Adidas's new CEO Kasper Rorsted for the following comments to CNBC:

It’s clear that the younger consumer engages with us predominately over the mobile device.

Digital engagement is key for us; you don’t see any TV advertising anymore. All of our engagement with the consumer is through digital media.

Ritson points out that media choice should come downstream of strategising. He writes, 'Very simply, a company like Adidas should start each year with an open mind and no general preference for any medium over any other. The minute a company starts ring-fencing a medium-specific budget or announcing that it is “digital first”, it inherently makes a mockery of its own strategic foundations and will almost certainly invest its marketing budget in a sub-optimal way.'

TV is not dead.

3. People care less and less about privacy

Buried within the Information Commissioner's Office's PDF on big data, AI, machine learning and data protection is a very robust opposition to the fallacy that young people in particular are happy to share personal information with gay abandon.

Though a DMA survey found that the percentage of people 'not concerned' about sharing data increased from 16% to 22% between 2012 and 2015, context is all important. What information is requested? What will it be used for? How far does the person trust the organisation?

Indeed, the ICO cites other studies that show privacy of personal data is still a top issue, and only slightly less important to younger age groups.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the debate is what many users see as an 'unconscionable contract' – the idea that web tracking is so prevalent, users have no choice but to allow their data to be used in order to navigate the web at all. Resignation rather than indifference.

A study that discusses this relationship also goes as far as refuting the idea that users are consciously engaging in trading personal data for benefits (e.g. discounts). It concludes a majority of Americans believe it is futile to try to control what companies can learn about them.

With GDPR is less than a year away (affecting organisations in the EU and those that deal with EU-based users), suddenly those that believe in the fallacy of privacy's trivialisation may have the rug pulled out from under them. The regulations will make sure that users are better informed than ever, and can request, amend or delete their data, or even port it to another organisation.

As digital technology matures, it is clear that cold calling, spam and hacking have become respectively big nuisances and a threat to users, and the judicial use of personal data is back on the user agenda.


4. Wastage is bad, targeting is good

In my last article on digital fallacies I touched on the problems with ever more targeted online advertising, but want to broaden the point to look at all perceived wastage.

The reality is that if your campaigns are good, highly creative and cut through, then what's the use in tightly controlling who sees them? Wouldn't wide reach be a good thing?

Binet and Field's research for the IPA, titled 'The Long and the Short of It' addresses this point – targeting loyal customers is not enough.

Here are just some of the key findings:

  • Long-term investment in advertising delivers double the profit of a short-term approach.
  • Brands which target the whole market achieve three times as many large business effects than those that focus on existing customers.
  • TV advertising remains the most effective way to build a brand and creates larger business effects than other forms of advertising.
  • Advertisers need to ensure their campaigns strike the right balance between long-term investment in brand building using mass media, and short-term, direct methods that stimulate sales.

Remember, consumers are always going to be more complex and nuanced creatures than our data describes them to be. And behavioural targeting will never be 100% effective either. Concentrating too much on targeting and reducing wastage is an excuse for the creatives to churn out crap stuff. 

I've included this quote before, but Ad Contrarian summarises it so beautifully, as follows:

"Small picture marketers know a lot of little things...They create tightly focused advertising and put it in front of a select number of precisely targeted individuals.

"On the other hand, big picture marketers know a few big things...They work very hard to produce widely appealing materials and put them everywhere. Then they stand back and let probability do the work.

"Why have all the world's leading brands been built by big picture marketers? Because the more you study data, the more you realize that data is just the residue of probability."

5. 'Digital marketing' is an obsolete phrase

Mark Ritson believes so. He says the strategic side of marketing is unchanged and that digital marketing is simply a new set of tools.

To some extent, Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein agrees with him that digital marketing is tactical, but that we shouldn't undervalue a new set of tactics that can bring us success quicker.

Crucially, Friedlein also believes that marketing has changed, 'specifically in a widened remit that encompasses ownership of the customer experience and thereby the product or service itself in some cases.'

For all the opinion pieces about the death of digital marketing, the demand for digital skills is growing and digital teams are subsuming others.

Read Friedlein's full article on the debate in Marketing Week.

Ben Davis

Published 1 June, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (9)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

I'd say that broadcast TV is dying, just not very quickly, and more for young people.

Here's some more recent TV viewing data drawn from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB). The numbers are average minutes of daily viewing between 2010 and 2016 (PDF).

Adults 25-34: fell from 199 to 157 = 21%
Adults 16-24: fell from 169 to 114 = 32%
Children: Fell from 151 to 101 = 33%

about 1 year ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

A friend of mine is waiting for the property market to crash in London before he buys. He's been waiting 20yrs so far...

I feel a bit like that with TV. I've been pessimistic about the future of TV for at least a decade and yet it has been very resilient. To be clear, when I say 'TV', I mean broadcast TV, not video content more generally. Consumption of audio-visual content certainly isn't dying but I'm still bearish about the futures of broadcast TV channels in the face of the Netflix-es, Amazons, YouTubes etc.

about 1 year ago


David Burdon, Director at Simply Clicks

Ben, A very nice piece. And one - so unusual in the world digital landfill that made me stop and want to join the debate. I guess the article was obviously meant to provoke. The use of Fallacies and Blinkered being rather strong terms for a business discipline full of exactitude and ambiguity. Some thoughts:
1. Brands and Love. People may not love their brands in the same way as they do other humans but they certainly develop emotional attachments. These may resemble similar feelings to love. I can think of several brands (and the organisations behind them) that I personally trust and forgive.
2. TV is Dying. TV may not being dying but it is certainly changing at such a pace that the old stable world terrestrial broadcasting that existed from the 1950s to 1990s is no longer recognisable. Think sport in particular and to a lesser extent drama. Is BT Sport TV or is it the Internet? Is House of Cards TV or is it the Internet?
3. Privacy. No comment. But switch of your mobile from time to time. And don't put your whole life on Facebook.
4. Wastage is Bad. Here you've conflated loyalty with waste. I may not think it's wise to exclusively target existing brand users but I wouldn't recommend attempting deliberate spending my marketing budget on geo or socio demographics that have little prospect of ever becoming customers. In a world of non-infinite budgets targeting everyone means prospects with a higher propensity to become customers get less coverage.
5. Digital Marketing. I agree with you here. The digitisation potential in the current phase of digital transformation goes well beyond the realms of classical marketing as taught by business schools and practised by marketing departments until very recently.

about 1 year ago

Dela Quist

Dela Quist, Email Marketing Evangelist & CEO at Alchemy Worx Ltd - 100% Email Marketing

I have always been fascinated by the wastage is bad fallacy with regard to email, a channel where proponents of the fallacy are numerous, highly vocal and tend to be Zealots (watch this space). Here we have a channel where getting a marketing message/brand impression in front of any individual is so close to zero (.005p) that it might as well be free.
Email is actually a highly effective broadcast channel that also has some pretty powerful targeting capabilities - it is a channel where it has been possible to send a million people a unique variant of any message for years.

Because of this and the fact that the industry has its roots in DM almost all thought leadership revolves around ever tighter targeting. Leading to the ridiculous situation we are in today, where the stated aim of many, many email marketers is to try and send as few emails as possible as infrequently as they can in the name of relevance and an attempt to not be considered spammers (who incidentally get that email is essentially a broadcast channel and use it that way).
In broadcast Reach and Frequency rule, in which case the near zero cost of delivery makes it the perfect channel.

I am now going to invoke my #DBS (do be smart) rule, which is to say that broadcast is at its most effective when money, time and effort is been spent on creative and product strategy. So if someone is smart, the point you make here that “if your campaigns are good, highly creative and cut through, then what's the use in tightly controlling who sees them [and] wouldn't wide reach be a good thing?”

This fallacy is so ingrained in the psyche of marketers that even those who know it is one tend to attribute any email success they get to segmentation and targeting or anything other than reach and frequency in order to avoid the opprobrium likely to come their way from peers and bosses.
If that is something that concerns you then read “Deliverability, Engagement, and the Theory of Email Marketing” an essay I wrote laying out all the data that disproves the fallacy and provides KPI’s that will help you better leverage the asset that is your email database.

Off to don my tin hat and flame resistant overalls

about 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff


1. Go on, share with us the brands you love :)
4. Yes, I realised this whilst writing and fudged it a bit. Still an interesting topic at the moment, given Facebook's travails with measurement and the failure of display more broadly.

about 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

about 1 year ago


Chris Turner, Owner and Principal at Bright Blue Kite

Thanks Ben, some big bubbles pricked! I'm hoping that 'digital marketing' is becoming obsolete because its just becoming 'marketing' in the same way no-one talks about 'new media' any more or even the 'information superhighway'.

about 1 year ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Ben Great article. I particularly enjoyed point #4. Just because you can segment/personalise, doesn't mean you should. Mass marketing works, when done well, but many spreadsheet wonks ignore this fact, because they're measuring short-run effect, not long-run impact.

about 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

Cheers Parry!

about 1 year ago

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