The Wasted Half of Advertising

Did you know that half your advertising dollar might be wasted!? That is what John Wannamaker, a famous new York retailer, said many years ago. Is he right or was he just exaggerating!  Why did he make this controversial assertion?

According to Wikipedia, John Wanamaker was one of the first to undertake large-scale advertising campaigns and to utilize the service of advertising agencies.   His alleged proclamation, “Half of every dollar I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half,” or some version of it, is one of the most quoted advertising clichés.

Most business people have a very simple concept of advertising, that is, more advertising will produce more sales. As a result, the effectiveness of advertising is measured exclusively by the level of sales, which usually means “immediate” sales. Paradoxically, some consumers have an opposite view; to them, intense advertising suggests that the product is not selling!   The very existence of this alternative perception confirms the naivety of the view held by some about advertising!

To judge whether John Wannamaker’s was just being facetious or whether there is any validity to his statement, we need to look more closely at how advertising works. Advertising researchers use the concept of ‘consumption of advertising’ to help us understand how an audience responds to advertising. From this perspective, advertising is thought of as a ‘commodity’ which the consumer can ‘consume’ in different amounts, at different times and in different ways.  Here are a few of the most non-technical findings:

1. Unless we are in a motivated to buy a particular product, most of us studiously avoid advertising  (but we all know this!)

2. For an advertisement to do any work it must catch and hold the attention of an audience. This is easier said than done because there are two types of attention that the advertiser must gain: voluntary and involuntary ( more on these in a follow-up article)

3. Individuals usually need to be exposed to an advertisement several times before it can be consumed (“understood and remembered”). So repetition is important in advertising.

4. An individual can like and enjoy an advertisement but may not be interested in buying the product. (somewhat counter intuitive?)

5. How an audience interprets an advertisement is often not what is intended.

This short list of insights into advertising should help us begin to understand that John Wannamaker was not merely trying to be facetious. A consumer is not some passive object that can be blown away by slick advertising! On the contrary, the audience, especially the modern audience, is quite actively involved in “consuming” advertising to suit its agenda and not that of the advertisers. Advertising is more like a game of cat and mouse; consequently, some “misses” (“wastage”) is to expected.  It is really a complex process that no single metaphor (“consumption”, “cat and mouse”) can capture. There is much more to be said on the topic but, in the meantime, let us summarize the main ways in which advertising might be wasted:

1. When the media “space” is so cluttered that the advertisement is missed.

2. When the advertisement reaches the wrong audience; for example, an advertisement for credit cards is aired in a children’s cartoon.

3. When the publication or placement of the advertisement does not coincide with the use of the medium by the intended audience, for example, placing an advertisement aimed at working people on TV at 11.00 a.m.

4. When the advertisement is zapped. Zapping is avoiding an advertisement by switching channels.

5. When the audience is exposed to the advertisement but the audience does attend to it.

Which “wasted half” of advertising the foregoing accounts for is anybody’s guess but clearly not all advertising is effective. To minimize waste and produce effective advertising several principles should be pursued. These will be discussed in the follow-up article.

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