Unlocking the Secrets of Believability in Advertising

Hugh Schulze
10 min read

Have you ever felt like a fraud, afraid that others might discover you are not as competent as you appear to be? That feeling is known as Impostor Syndrome, and it affects people across all industries, including advertising. In a field where confidence and creativity are essential, Impostor Syndrome can be particularly challenging. But it's possible to overcome it and achieve success in the industry.

As I was making my way home through Cubs traffic the other day, I found myself behind a Budweiser truck on its way to its next delivery. As a copywriter myself, I’m sure I’ve inflicted some hyperbole on a client or reader at some point in my career, but reading this I wondered: does the client really believe this? Does the client’s boss? Did the copywriter believe it when he or she wrote it? Because like me, I’m pretty sure your answer would probably be: “I don’t.”


I may have been in a slightly incredulous, ornery mood because of the traffic, but just that morning a colleague had forwarded an article from Harvard Business Review, entitled: “What Airbnb and Strava Know About Building Emotional Connections with Customers.” In the article, the authors refer to “The 100 lovers strategy.” The authors coined the term, based upon a quote from one of Airbnb’s earliest investors: “It’s better to have 100 people love you than a million people that just sort of like you.”

After defining that term, the authors then make the presumptive (and dubious) leap from cause to effect: “Airbnb’s 100 lovers strategy worked.” I’ll just add the exclamation points that statement requires!!!!

“The 100 lovers strategy worked”?! But, you just defined that as a “strategy”! THAT’s why Airbnb became so incredibly successful? It didn’t have anything to do with the company being an early digital entrant into a hospitality market that was ripe for disruption? It wasn’t the millions in seed money and Series A financing from Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners?

Put aside the leap of logic and attribution of this “strategy” to their success, here’s my real beef with the “lovers strategy” … “Lovers.”

It’s the lack of a clear definition of what “Love” constitutes to these writers that is the problem.

How exactly are those HBR authors defining the term “Love”? Would that be a first-time user who foregoes all future stays at a hotel? Someone who names their first-born child “Airbnb”? It’s the lack of a clear definition of what “Love” constitutes to these writers that is the problem. “#1 Preference” may not be as emotionally evocative as “Love” but it’s certainly more measurable (and more honest).

What’s the big deal?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a crisis in credibility. A simple search finds that term used in politics, science, economics, and psychology. With the credibility of professional journalists being (apparently successfully) attacked, with the words “Fake News” constantly falling like confetti at a questionable inaugural ball, how bad is it for advertisers?

One study found that 88% of consumers trusted online reviews as much as personal recommendations. And while there are some growing concerns about the credibility of online reviews, Pew Research found that 82% consult reviews or ratings before making a purchase. Advertising credibility is problematic at best.

A poll of 2,500 people by Rakuten Marketing found that 83% consider online advertising a “disruptive experience.” (More than half–56%–felt a single company was advertising to them too frequently.)

One need only look as far as Facebook to see how questions of credibility can thoroughly undermine a brand. If you aren’t credible, you can’t be trusted. Lose credibility and you lose the narrative thread of your brand. That’s why online reviews and social media, in general, have become both rocket fuel and toxins. Credibility is a difficult thing to retrieve. There’s a whole online universe ready to take down the un-credible.

Being emotional versus making emotional connections

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in what the HBR article promotes: “making emotional connections.” (Certainly the idea that “transactions alone don’t create sustainable engagement” is not big news in 2018.) We just don’t believe that being more emotional, or using more emotional language, makes a connection. In fact, according to research, lack of credibility in your emotional approach can have the opposite effect and alienate your customers.

Credibility is important for (at least) two reasons: a) words matter; and b) credibility will be a key driver in how your customer or prospect influences others about your brand.

What’s precious? Credibility is.

To the questions posed earlier about Budweiser’s “precious cargo”: Do the client, client’s boss, and the copywriter really believe that a bottle of Budweiser is “precious cargo”? Do they mean it in some postmodern way that “valuable” equals “precious”?

If they do, I suggest each one rush home and hug their children, a significant other, and/or their five cats – something truly precious – in their lives.

Credibility can be enhanced in at least three ways: measurability (what measurable traits and qualities do those “100 lovers” share in their consideration of Airbnb?); relevance (the better I understand your claim’s relevance to my world, the more I can relate to it); and believability. Some might argue that believability is the same thing as “credibility.” But while I may think something is credible but unlikely, to rank something as “unbelievable” dismisses it altogether. It isn’t likely at all! (In common usage though, “incredible” generally carries with it the sense that something is possible, but astonishing, if true.)

These days, we’d all benefit with more credible claims.

In conclusion, Impostor Syndrome is a common issue that many people in the advertising industry face, but it doesn't have to hold you back. By recognizing the signs and taking steps to build your confidence and skills, you can overcome Impostor Syndrome and thrive in your career. Remember, everyone starts somewhere, and it's okay to ask for help along the way. You have what it takes to succeed, so go out there and prove it to yourself.