Most ads have no sales message. So why do people advertise?
A few years back, before I’d even considered advertising as a career, I spent some time occasionally popping my head into an economics lecture at the University of Southampton. One such economics lecture, one day, was on advertising.
The topic of discussion was this:
Why do people advertise?
The question was marginally more interesting than the usual stuff about tax and interest rates, so I paid more attention than I usually would… then quickly shelved my new learnings and returned to the pub.
Today, though, an article in The Drum by some guy called Eric Visser dislodged them.
In his article, Visser explores ‘why online advertising is killing creativity’. I reckon Visser would’ve liked my lecture – because the questions knowing why people advertise might well be key to understanding why online advertising is often so dismal.
You might think the reason why people advertise is obvious: to sell more stuff.
In my experience, that’s usually true.
But then look at this ad for Tovaritch! vodka:
Some ads offer almost no sales message at all. Are they really of any use?
Setting aside four words, it offers nothing in terms of a sales argument.
So can it be true that people are running this advert (and others like it) to try to sell more stuff?
One of the theories the economists were working on, even back then, was the idea of advertising being a ‘signal’. Here’s how it went:
Advertising is expensive.
So, people figure brands that advertise probably believe in the quality of their product.
And when those people stand in a shop wondering whether to buy Tovaritch! vodka or a non-branded equivalent, they decide Tovaritch! is probably not completely terrible.
They pick up a premium-priced bottle of Tovaritch!, just to be on the safe side.
If you remain unconvinced, ask yourself (UK folk) if you’d prefer to buy Tovaritch! vodka or Absolut.
Tovaritch! – the world’s most awarded vodka – isn’t advertised here in the UK… hence your reservations.
The point is: brands that advertise can usually charge a premium and still make sales, just because they’re advertising. Their ads require no sales argument whatsoever. There are no shackles. So why not draw an astronaut drinking vodka on the moon?
You’re still advertising. You’re still OK.
So long as advertising is expensive.
Online, advertising is not expensive.
So the mere act of running online ads is not enough.
To be of any real use, online ads (that are unsupported by offline advertising) must try to sell.
That probably goes some way to explaining why online ads might be less ‘creative’ than TV or print ads – which is what would’ve interested Visser.
Online ads can’t just be branded entertainment.
Instead, online ads usually attempt to get people to buy.
No astronauts drinking vodka on the moon. Just sales messages attempting to get people to do something.
Now – here’s where things get really interesting.
Is it possible to create ads that build a brand (so you can charge a premium) and that sell stuff at the same time?
Again, apparently so.
Here’s an ad from a (D&AD award-winning) campaign that did neither:
This Pepsi ad (yep, it is for Pepsi and, tragically, it is an ad) did nothing for sales
And here’s an ad from a campaign that certainly did:
This campaign for M&G investments increased enquiries by 32.5% and market share by 14.8%… with a 31.7% reduction in media costs
Not many creatives shoot for the latter. Why?
My guess is ad people, determined to be seen as ‘thought-leaders’, prefer coming up with their own theories to actually doing their homework.
The upshot is few ad people really know how advertising works. Which is handy for people like me and you.
Advertising is hard enough as it is. The last thing we need is tougher competition.
Footnote: for simplicity, this post sets aside Ehrenberg-Bass research. But don’t both the research and signalling just fit together beautifully?