Advertising works. Don’t believe me? Then you are my favorite demographic.
Last Thursday my best friend messaged me and lamented the fact he was arguing whether advertising works or not on an online forum.
Both he and I work in marketing. Over the years, we’ve run all sorts of advertising campaigns, many of which most people would never call advertising. As such, we are pretty good at knowing that yes, advertising does in fact work.
The funniest part of my friend’s argument was not the subject matter. It was not that he had let himself get into an online argument. It was where the argument was taking place: his favorite hang gliding forum.
As a dastardly creator of advertisements, I’m going to let you all in on a little secret that my friend’s fellow forum poster didn’t believe: advertising works, and if you don’t think it does, you’re my favorite demographic.
People who don’t believe in advertisements are the best
I always imagine the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy when someone tells me they don’t believe in advertisements. Advertisements become a mythical character in my head, like Hyperbole and a Half’s beloved Alot, that people can grow out of when they become adults (or, in the case of Alots, learn how to spell.)
Advertising isn’t a myth, though, or something we’ve concocted so you eat vegetables and coerce you to get to bed on time. Advertisements make up a multi-billion dollar industry that grows every year. Why? Because they’re effective.
To understand why I think people who don’t believe in advertisements are the best, let’s get to the root of the word.
A notice or announcement in a public medium promoting a product, service, or event orpublicizing a job vacancy:
A person or thing regarded as a means of recommending something:
Businessdictionary.com has a more modern and practical breakdown of the definition:
Paid, non-personal, public communication about causes, goods and services, ideas, organizations, people, and places, through means such as direct mail, telephone, print, radio, television, and internet. An integral part of marketing, advertisements are public notices designed to inform and motivate. Their objective is to change the thinking pattern (or buying behavior) of the recipient, so that he or she is persuaded to take the action desired by the advertiser. When aired on radio or television, an advertisement is called a commercial. According to the Canadian-US advertising pioneer, John E. Kennedy (1864–1928), an advertisement is “salesmanship in print.”
In short: an advertisement is a public communication about something that is created to get someone to do something. The form that communication takes varies wildly and the action the communication is aiming to achieve can be as small as a thought or as large as a very expensive purchase.
“Everything is advertising, then!” you might be exclaiming right now, tearing your hair and scoffing at your screen.
Yes. Yes indeed.
This is why people who don’t believe in advertisements are my favorite.
If you don’t believe advertising works on you, you are going to be more likely to see good advertising as something else entirely and be more receptive to it and thusly more likely to take the action I want you to take.
Why people think they hate advertising
When people say they hate advertising I usually reply by saying, “no you don’t, you hate bad advertising.”
Bad things ruin the fun for everyone. Advertisements are one of the best examples for this rule. When an advertisement is obvious, heavy handed, or otherwise poorly executed it screams I just want you to do this thing! and makes everyone painfully aware that what they are watching is a thing someone paid for in hopes that you, in turn, would pay them.
You can’t come at advertising head on. Playing chicken with your consumer while barreling towards them like a crazy man on top of a freight train screaming jargon through a bullhorn might get you press because you are a hilarious spectacle, but your ad will become a train wreck and train wrecks, while buzz worthy, are never good advertising.
If you Google “bad advertisements” you’ll find a treasure trove of very cringeworthy ads through the years, so instead of using those as my example of bad advertising I’ll use a recent TV commercial that gets me agitated any time I see it.
First off: when I decided to use this as my example, I had to jog my memory because I couldn’t remember if the ad was for a Ford or a Chevy truck. Without saying anything else, this shows you that the ad failed. I can tell you about the TV spot and why it’s terrible but not what I was supposed to buy after watching it.
To the ad (which was Chevy, by the way.) The company brought in a bunch of kids to a focus group and showed them a man standing in front of a truck and then an identical man standing in front of a generic looking sedan. The kids were then asked to say what kind of pet each man would probably own.
Truck man? He’d own a snake or a dog or something. You know, manly, virile pets.
Sedan man? Some birds.
There’s another ad in this series: same focus group concept but this time women are telling us which man they think is sexier.
Truck man wins, of course. Sedan guy? He’s the one your mom wants you to marry. Truck guy is the guy you leave Sedan guy for. Obvs. Buy a truck, mkay?
Unless you are going for the Subway $5 footlong tactic where your value prop is “our food is cheap and there’s a lot of it, come eat it, it’s five bucks” then you have to employ a bit more strategy and grace to win at the game of advertising. You should also attempt to not be wildly annoying or insulting, but that’s also good advice for life.
And people who don’t believe in advertising? If you do it right, they won’t even know it’s advertising. Their guard is down — they’ll swear up and down what they are seeing or doing is something else — and you’ll be able to relay your message and get them to take the action you are looking for without them filtering you through our natural advertising safety net.
Good advertising is rarely called advertising
When I worked in video games, I was happiest when my work was attributed to someone else. If I created something and the fans and customers thanked the development team instead of me, I’d done my job properly. Why? Because I was in marketing and community: I created campaigns and programs to get people excited about our games so that they would buy them. My goal was to hype people up, get them to tell their friends, and make money. So when I created something with that goal and people thought it was a gift from the beloved creative minds making the product (dev teams are the rock stars of the industry) then my work was being seen more as entertainment than ad.
Every video game trailer, every movie teaser, every music video, every GoPro short film: they’re all ads. Yet every person I’ve spoken to that proclaims to not believe in ads has watched at least one of these in the recent past, willingly, and enjoyed it.
Boom. You just got advertised to. And it totally worked.
So what makes a good advertisement good? What is one common thread you can always rely on when you are trying to gut check if what you are making is worth your time?
Every good advertisement has value.
If the person who consumes your ad derives value from it, you did your job well. Because time is the most expensive currency a human can trade it: it’s something we all have a finite amount of and we cannot ever get more than what we’re allotted. If a person is giving your product their time, you better give them back something that is equal or better than the time spent. That value can be an emotion, knowledge, or just pure entertainment — but you better be damned sure you know what your audience wants and how to give it to them.
One of my favorite ads from 2014 is a commercial for feminine products. It’s called “Like a Girl” by Always and was hailed as not only one of the best ads of the year but also one of the most viral.
Why did this ad work? Because it did more than try and get you to buy some feminine hygiene pads. It spoke to more than the Target Demographic who buys pads. It had value that people wanted to talk about and share.
You are always being advertised to
When someone tells me that advertising doesn’t affect them, I like to ask them how they bought their car.
Maybe they bought it because it was reliable. Maybe they bought it because it was a good price. Maybe they bought it because they love to drive and really want a fast or sporty or luxurious car.
Yes, of course. We all have reasons for why we buy something, but how did we reach those conclusions?
While there are exceptions to every rule (like the person who buys a clunker at the absolute lowest price) most people have made a decision based on more complex factors than the dollars in their pockets — and most of those decisions are derived from or influenced by advertising.
What makes a car reliable? How did you determine that criteria? How did you determine the list of cars that fit into that criteria? The answer to most, or all, of these questions, is probably research. And that’s great — I rock Consumer Reports and Kelley Blue Book with the rest of them — but I also extensively read forums and reviews on Amazon and Yelp. And those guys? They’ve done their research, too, and some are subject matter experts, but they still formed opinions from direct or indirect contact with advertising that helped shape their views and opinions of products.
I can’t definitively prove that marketing made you choose a BMW over a Mercedes or a Toyota over a Honda, but decisions aren’t made in a vacuum and the research that drives those decisions are often founded in and fueled by advertising.
That’s not evil. It’s how businesses distribute information to consumers. Businesses are out to portray their products in the best light possible to the most people they can. Businesses are in business to make money and turn a profit. Embrace this, use it to your advantage, and be aware and informed of what’s happening when you consume information. Don’t pretend advertising doesn’t work on you: that makes you vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the simple fact that you believe yourself to be impervious to something that can be useful and is used every day, everywhere.
Advertising is not evil: it’s a form of communication
Comedian Bill Hicks was wrong when he told folks working in marketing and advertising to kill themselves.
Do not condemn a company for wanting to turn a profit. Even if you work for a non-profit or charity, there’s a bottom line you need to hit (be it through income or donations) in order to pay your bills. The world runs on money: that’s not inherently evil.
Rage against bad advertising. Cut down what is crap and hold up for all to see what is good. Don’t oversimplify a complex and very necessary driving force in economies everywhere: be an active participant in advertising, both as a creator and a consumer. You’ll not only gain the upper hand when you embrace it, understand it, and realize that advertising not only works, but it works on everyone — including you — but you’ll also become part of the ecosystem that will eventually make advertising better.
Sticking your head in the sand doesn’t work, ever. The Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Alot do not exist.
Open your eyes and make it work harder for your money, time, and attention.
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