Corporate Ads Need to Sell Ideas, Too

Tim Montgomerie, a columnist for The Times of London and founder of ConservativeHome, writes in CapX this week about the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. Reviewing Francis’ frequently-cited (and alarmingly popular) critiques of capitalism, Montgomerie remarks on the frustrating inability of for-profit enterprises to defend themselves in the court of public opinion:

…how can a belief system that spends $600bn advertising its products be so awful at selling itself?

During this year the global advertising industry will spend an estimated $600 billion advertising the products of the free enterprise system to consumers. That’s about $90 per person in the key markets of the world. The $500 billion will include $189 billion in America, $73 billion in China, $40 billion in Japan, $28 billion in Germany and $25 billion in Britain. … It is amazing that capitalists as individuals are so attuned to the need to sell their individual products but so neglectful of the need to sell the system as a whole. It seems they can sell almost anything to anyone – including products we don’t really need – but can’t sell capitalism as a system.

This conundrum has long troubled certain defenders of free markets, in particular my colleague Fred Smith. Fred has long suggested that companies need to adopt a “two-words” approach to advertising, in which they craft messages that sell their products, but also leave the audience with a positive view of the company itself. Some ads can excite a consumer but leave the same person, as a citizen, skeptical about the corporation’s role in society. A TV viewer who is inspired to take a cool new car on a test drive, for example, may very well still support greater regulation of the auto industry.

Montgomerie states flatly that capitalism has a marketing problem and that free marketers need to get more organized. He’s quite right. But we denizens of think tanks and opinion pages can’t do it alone. We need an alliance with leaders in the business world who are willing to tell their marketing departments to put this challenge front and center. If more CEOs decided to use their company’s advertising budgets to sell the virtues of the market while also selling soap, we might just be able to make some progress. Perhaps we could even save capitalism with Super Bowl ads.