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Does advertising work?

Written by Lesli Boldt on Friday, April 3, 2015 at 07:36AM
Filed in: Business Communications Marketing Strategy
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About a month ago, I picked up a copy of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell at a Rotary Club book sale in Courtenay BC. The book was published 10 years ago, but as a communications professional and an eager culture watcher, I'd suggest that many of the authors' arguments are as relevant today as they were then, particularly around the notions of "hip," "cool," and the bourgeois-bohemian ("bobo") creative class. And nowhere is this cool, hipster, creative class more in evidence than in the advertising industry.

In their book, Heath and Potter attempt to debunk the still-prevalent countercultural premise that, as consumers, we're all duped, brainwashed or bamboozled into wanting "cool stuff" by advertising. But are we?

The authors note that some of the globe's most powerful and successful brands - like Hershey, Starbucks, The Body Shop and Subway - became massive consumer brands without any advertising whatsoever. How did that happen? And if brands aren't spending billions on advertising to sell stuff, why advertise? The authors argue that brands that do advertise do so more to stave off the competition and defend their market position than to sell their own product.

I'm not sure I agree with this argument entirely. I mean, I'm pretty sure that advertising plays a role in getting people to a big sale at Best Buy, or the weekly farmer's market - that's basic awareness and promotions advertising.

But can we be compelled to buy something - or vote for someone - by being communicated to through advertising alone?

Why advertise?

In my experience, companies, non-profit organizations and political parties advertise for a number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with encouraging people to buy their product, come to an event, or come out to vote for them.

In my view, most big brands advertise to increase brand awareness and communicate the brand promise. Advertising in this case is not so much about motivating a change in behaviour, but rather, communicating what your brand is all about - its "cool factor," the cool individuals or organizations associated with it, what you're all about as a company - which will over time influence your attitudes about that brand (and ultimately, they hope, your purchasing decisions). This is also the major focus of major political campaign advertising.

A great example of this is Patagonia's Don't Buy this Jacket campaign. Patagonia is another one of those brands that has succeeded without almost any advertising - and when they do advertise, the major bang for their buck results from the earned and social media buzz their campaigns create.

The problem is, there are also really ridiculous reasons people advertise that - I'm saying it now - are a complete waste of money. I see it all the time - in business, non-profits and in politics. They include:

  • Impressing the influential editors, producers and publishers of papers and magazines, radio and TV stations and online media sites, in the hopes of getting better editorial coverage of their project or campaign. This is a very old-fashioned and dated approach that almost belongs in a Jimmy Stewart movie, but is one that some organizations continue to follow, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in Canada, and often cheaping out on other more effective communications channels (e.g. earned media, social media, videos and more) in the process.
  • To control the message. Some companies and organizations would prefer to advertise than go the earned media route, because earned media is inherently risky and advertising - even if it doesn't work - is at least a "sure thing". This is an expensive strategy but again, a very common one. Entire industries have popped up to take these advertisers' money, including "native advertising" or sponsored content in newspapers, and contracts with "mommy bloggers" that pay parents to give consumer products positive reviews. If you're only paying for it, is your message credible to your audience? I'll let you answer that.
  • Swagger. This is the "vanity plate" or "Ross Perot" rationale for advertising, where you try to convey the sense that your event, product, campaign or message must be something impressive because you have thousands - or millions - to advertise with. This happens in the film industry all the time, where they pump millions of advertising dollars into what we soon discover are just really bad movies. Only really, really wealthy companies can afford to throw away money for this.

As for me? I've been in business for 14 years and haven't spent a dime on paid advertising (in any medium). My business marketing mix includes blogging (obviously), social media, earned media commentary, networking, a website and public speaking engagements, which together generate more than enough sales leads and brand profile for me.

What do you think? When does advertising work...and when is it a waste of money?

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