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July 10, 2014
Yes, Advertising Works — Except When it Doesn’t
Why an age-old mystery still isn’t solved
A recent poll revealed that the majority of consumers believe social media has no influence on their buying decisions. And while social media gurus cried foul, other folks said, “I told you so,” and everyone questioned the methodology and veracity of the poll, one thing became clear: We still don’t know whether advertising works or not.
Actually we do. Advertising works, and if it didn’t marketers wouldn’t spend billions on all forms of it. The right question to ask isn’t, “Does Advertising Work?” The right question is, “How does advertising work?”
Back in the nascent days of the web, I worked on a tourism account that featured, in every ad, a CTA to call for a “free travel planner.” The client used at least 40 phone numbers, one for each media tactic, as their way of determining whether the print ad in a magazine like Better Homes and Gardens did better than the radio commercial on the country station. Of course, they didn’t account for folks who already had a travel planner or didn’t need one. It was just a mechanism by which they could see which, if any, ads finally drove consumers to do something.
And that’s part of the conundrum: Metrics will always be imperfect. It’s often said of creative that “good is the enemy of great.” In measurement, good is great when great is unattainable. Consumers are bombarded with marketing everywhere they look, and new forms like social media are as imperfect as any other tactic. So the constant drumbeat of new methods trying to command the attention, and likes, of consumers, rolls on.
I’m not embarrassed to admit it—advertising, on occasion, works on me. I even clicked on a Google ad to hire a photographer to shoot my marriage proposal in Paris. But like everyone else, I’m assaulted with brand messages all day. Little by little, the messages creep in to all of our brains. Of course, they'll have an affect on us whether we're aware of it consciously or not.
Even if it’s 1 in a 1000 response rate that results in a direct or indirect action, advertising works. But those are pitiful percentages to tout to clients. And we don’t know quite why a message works. Advertising can appeal to both our rational and emotional sides. But if I respond to a 20% off offer, am I responding to the rational “I’m saving money” side or the emotional “hey, I feel good about this deal” side?
It gets even more troublesome when we think about all the so-called “branding” ads with no call to action. Are we trying to simply “soften up” consumers so they’ll be more receptive when the moment is right? I’ve gotten thousands of mailers from Comcast over the years, in addition to seeing them plaster TV spots all over the place. Was it the 234th mailer for Comcast that pushed me over the edge and made me decide to upgrade my service? Was it the commercial? Was it the friendly sales guy I met at the home show? It’s simply hard to tell.

The sheer volume of advertising can tip the scales in a brand’s favor. It’s why political ads work. If they didn’t, politicians wouldn’t feel a compulsive need to raise so much money for commercials. Same goes for consumer brands that have the money to pursue every advertising tactic available. Other methods like PR, or PR disguised as ‘native advertising,’ also shape the narrative many brands want to tell. Cumulatively, all of this has a subtle influence even if a piece isn’t overly sales-heavy in its message.
Subtly, and subconsciously, advertising conditions us as consumers. So anyone who says, “advertising doesn’t work on me” isn’t telling the whole story. But the inability to specifically pinpoint what triggers a response or a sale is what makes this business so maddening for many clients and agencies.
And as an industry, we’re not alone: Movies with $200 million budgets can be hits or bombs. Music albums can sell millions or go nowhere. Every year new TV shows debut one month, only to get canceled the next. All the planning and research in the world can’t prevent a stinker.
That’s the reality we as agency people and marketers have to live with. We can try to make the ideas great and provocative, and make sure they’re seen in the right places by the right people. Still, at the end of the day, it’s a gamble.
We should never forget: We’re all consumers ourselves. We’re open and susceptible to all forms of marketing. So let’s strive to make the kind to work we’d all want to see ourselves.

That may be the kind of advertising that truly works — for everyone.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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