The Rise of PR and Fall of Advertising
Part 1: The Fall of Advertising.
Advertising has always suffered from a lack of credibility. An advertisement is the opinion of a company whose motives and judgment are not the same as those of a consumer.
Advertising tries to make up for its limitations by massive media expenditures. The emphasis has been on impact rather than on communications. Over the past few decades, three developments have seriously undermined the effectiveness of advertising in general.
One is the increasing costs for any individual advertisement. The second is the increasing volume of advertising. And the third is the expansion of advertising media to include almost every available opportunity to influence a consumer. (From ball games to bathrooms to blimps.)
This triple combination has seriously eroded the effectiveness of all advertising programs, including those of the largest spenders.
For four years in a row, from 1997 to the year 2000, General Motors was the largest advertiser in America, spending $13.2 billion on advertising. In those four years, General Motors’ share of the U.S. automobile market dropped from 32.1 percent to 28.1 percent.
Other big advertisers, including McDonald’s, AT&T, Nike and Coca-Cola have had similar records. Big budget don’t necessarily produce big sales or profit increases.
In response to its critics, the advertising industry has tried to divorce itself from a focus on effectiveness to a focus on “creativity” and “awards.” The role of advertising, according to many of its defenders, is not to sell anything, but to capture the prospect’s attention.
No advertising has gotten as much attention as the Budweiser campaign, “Whassup?” The Whassup? campaign has won more awards than any other advertising program in advertising history, including the Grand Prix for TV and Cinema at Cannes.
Advertising Age reported the euphoria that erupted when the Cannes award was announced: “The half-dozen spots from DDB Worldwide, Chicago, for Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser beer were so widely popular with festival goers that during screening audience members were still shouting the infectious catchphrase two categories after alcoholic drinks ended.”
“It was fresh and amusing, and everyone fell in love with it,” said one TV judge. “It took about 5 minutes to decide and was almost 100%.”
The following year, Budweiser won a Bronze Lion at Cannes for “What are you doing?” a yuppie spoof of the Whassup? campaign. And August Busch IV, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president for marketing was named Advertiser of the Year for Budweiser campaigns’ “outstanding and consistent quality …over the past few years.”
Wait a minute, did “Whassup?” or “What you are doing?” sell any Budweiser beer? As a matter of fact, U.S. sales of Budweiser beer (in barrels) have fallen every year for the last decade, from 50 million barrels in 1990 to less than 35 million barrels in the year 2000. Whassup, Budweiser?
Part 2: The Rise of PR.
Advertising builds brands is the claim of the advertising industry. The American Advertising Federation, for example, is running an ad campaign with the theme, “Advertising. The way great brands get to be great brands.”
Yet virtually all of the new brands recently created have been PR successes, not advertising successes. To name a few: The Body Shop, Starbucks, Red Bull, Amazon.com, Yahoo!, eBay, Palm, PlayStation and BlackBerry.
Anita Roddick built The Body Shop into a major worldwide brand without any advertising. Instead she traveled the world on a relentless quest for publicity.
Until recently Starbucks didn’t spend a hill of beans on advertising either. In ten years, the company spent less that $10 million on advertising, a trivial amount for a brand that delivers annual sales of $1.3 billion today. Starbucks, on the other hand, received an enormous amount of favorable publicity.
Wal-Mart became the world’s largest retailer, ringing up sales approaching $100 billion, with very little advertising. A Wal-Mart sibling, Sam’s Club, averages $45 million per store with almost no advertising.
In the pharmaceutical field, Viagra, Prozac and Valium became worldwide brands with almost no advertising.
In the toy field, Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, and Pokémon became highly successful brands with almost no advertising.
In the high-technology field, Oracle, Cisco and SAP became multi-billion dollar companies (and multi-billion dollar brands) with almost no advertising.
We’re beginning to see research that supports the superiority of PR over advertising to launch a brand. A new study of 91 new product launches shows highly successful products are more likely to use PR-related activities than less successful ones.
Commissioned by Schneider & Associates in collaboration with Boston University’s Communications Research Center and Susan Fournier, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, the study is believed to be the first of its kind. We learned that the role of PR, while underutilized, was extremely significant when leveraged,” said the study.
Part 3: The rebirth of advertising.
Over time, a new brand reaches a point where it runs out of publicity potential. The question arises, how to maintain a brand once a brand has been built by PR techniques.
Here is a role that advertising can play. Maintaining a brand, rather than creating it. But “brand maintenance” advertising has be completely different from the “creative” approach advertising normally takes.
Because of its credibility problem, advertising cannot be “creative,” using the dictionary definition of the word, meaning “original” or even “new and different.”
Advertising needs to work with what already exists inside the prospect’s mind. Advertising needs to reinforce existing perceptions rather than creating new ones. Advertising needs to be “old and the same.”
When the Goodyear blimp says “#1 in tires,” the consumer thinks, Yes, Goodyear is No. 1 in tires so they must make better tires. (When Firestone says, “Making it better,” the consumer thinks, No, Firestone doesn’t make better tires because I’ve read in the paper about all their tire problems.)
Advertising in its finest form is cheerleading. Advertising touches ideas and concepts already existing in the mind, brings them to the surface and strengthens them. Originality is the antithesis of what good advertising is all about.
The creative cheerleader who brings an original cheer to the big game is going to be disappointed in the crowd’s reaction.
“What the hell was that all about,” is the typical reaction to most television commercials. The creativity gets in the way of the true function of advertising which is not to communicate or inform customers and prospects.
The true function of advertising is to reinforce an existing message. If you want to send a new message, use PR.
Part 4: Advertising is the wind. PR is the sun.
In one of Aesop’s fables, the wind and the sun had a dispute over who was the stronger of the two.
They decided to settle the issue by trying to make a traveler take off his coat. The wind went first but the harder the wind blew the more closely the traveler wrapped his coat around him.
Then the sun came out and began to shine. Soon the traveler felt the sun’s warmth and took off his coat. The sun had won.
You can’t force your way into the prospect’s mind. Advertising is perceived as an imposition, an unwelcome intruder who needs to be resisted. The harder the sell, the harder the wind blows, the more the prospect resists the sales message.
Advertising people talk about impact. Spreads, inserts, foldouts and full color vs. black and white in print ads. Frenetic action, crazy angles and jump cuts in television commercials. Turning up the volume in radio spots. But these are exactly the attributes that say to a prospect, don’t pay any attention to me, I’m an advertisement.
The harder an advertisement tries to force its way into the mind, the less likely it will accomplish its objective. Once in awhile a prospect drops his or her guard and the wind will win. But not very often.
PR is the sun. You can’t force the media to run your message. It’s entirely in their hands. All you can do is smile and make sure your PR material is as helpful as possible.
Nor does the prospect perceive any force in an editorial message. It’s the opposite. The prospect thinks the media is trying to be helpful by alerting me to a wonderful new product or service.