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Who's the advertising man?

By Lawrence Henry
web posted September 10, 2001

A few weeks ago, my sons and I heard part of the National Public Radio program Marketplace. One of the show's editors, Professor Jeffrey Kaplan, was expounding on the expansion of brand-naming and brand-buying throughout popular culture - a Bad Thing, in his opinion, opposed by "a rag-tag band of citizen activists."

Professor Kaplan, who heads a department of media studies or some such at a university, proceeded to proclaim several falsehoods, the most egregious of which is that nobody has any idea what advertising does.

"Taken all together, advertising studies of reach and effectiveness are equivocal," said Prof. Kaplan - meaning that some studies say one thing, some say another, and therefore none of them means anything at all. "Look at the dot.com companies who spent 97 cents of every dollar on advertising," the Professor continued, pursuing a typical wise-ass pseudo-syllogism. "Where are they now?"

If Professor Kaplan is what passes for a college teacher nowadays, I find myself more and more convinced that my wife and I don't have to worry about saving up for our sons's higher educations. We'll just march them down to the Marine Corps recruiting office when they're 18.

Let's start with the assertion that advertising studies of reach and effectiveness are "equivocal." That's like saying that half of a sixth grade class gets 100 percent on math tests and half gets zero; therefore students's math performance, "taken all together," is equivocal, or meaningless. Nonsense. All it means is that half the class have learned their math facts perfectly, while half have not learned them at all.

In the real world, of course, such results don't happen. They don't happen in the classroom, and they don't happen in advertising.

Direct mail advertising, for one, can be measured with great precision. A large mailing can be sent to a carefully selected audience; that mailing is often split in half, with half the recipients getting one kind of copy package and coupon, and half getting one slightly different. Out of the responses - which can obviously be measured; people send back a postcard - one half of the audience will respond better than the other half. The better-responding mailing will be repeated, split again between one small variable.

Do that hundreds of times, and you get a very fine idea what makes a certain audience of people buy things.

Similarly, large commodity products, like big-brand beer, soft drinks, and laundry detergents, have developed advertising strategies for radio, television, magazines and other media that get measured for the effect of certain messages and techniques over long periods of time. They know what works. A bump in sales of a quarter of one percent in Pepsi, Budweiser, or Tide makes a difference of millions of dollars in revenue. It's no coincidence that large accounts like that have maintained relationships with single ad agencies for decades at a time.

Advertising people can poke plenty of fun at themselves, because it is not an exact science. "I know half my ad dollar gets wasted," runs one joke. "I just don't know which half."

The more ephemeral and distant the ad medium, the more elusive the measure of effectiveness and reach. Direct mail and direct response yield highly calculable results. Television advertising, while it conveys more widespread power, can be measured much less precisely. Even less measurable is the brand-new medium of Internet advertising. This should surprise no one. The Internet is still shaking itself out as a medium, and its main challenge now, as it has always been, has been figuring out how to measure its commercial value and impact.

No, Professor Kaplan's well-practiced rap about "equivocal" advertising results is nothing more than a decades-old academic attack on advertising itself, one of the staples of leftist politics. Advertising, after all, is the cutting sword of capitalism.

That wise-ass syllogism about the dot.coms spending 97 percent of every dollar on advertising, and "Where are they now?" ought to be followed by a pre-recordeded announcement: "Honk! Honk! Spin Alert! Spin Alert!" Never mind the blowsy ignoring of ordinary journastic precision. Which dollars?

Revenues? Post-tax? Corporate spending? Which dot.coms? The ones that were selling nothing? And what does it prove, exactly, that trying to sell nothing doesn't work?

The real danger here, Professor Kaplan, is not that some corporation will buy the Marketplace program name. (That has already happened all over Public Radio, as any Archer Daniels Midland shareholder can tell you.) It is that broadcasters like Professor Kaplan will create a marketing and branding entity known as the Markeplace Listener who is supposed to believe in certain things.

In brand names, for example, like "rag-tag band of citizen activists." ESR

Larry Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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