Does advertising actually work?

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 18 2006 7:39 AM

Does Advertising Work?

An ingenious new book finally answers the question.

Listen to an interview with the author here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

What Sticks by Rex Briggs and Greg Stuart

Every book ever written about marketing will at some point dig up that old, familiar line: "I know half my advertising is wasted—I just don't know which half."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The quote shows up as expected (right off the bat, on Page 12) in the newly released What Sticks, by Rex Briggs and Greg Stuart. But while most authors treat this chestnut as a sad-but-true statement on the nature of the ad game, Briggs and Stuart (two marketing consultants) treat it more like a challenge. They argue that you can determine precisely which half of your advertising is wasted, if you'll just put in the effort. (Oh, and by the way, it's not really half. More like 37.3 percent, by their calculations.)

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The underlying premise of What Sticks is that for too long, marketing has escaped hardheaded analysis. It's become (to use Briggs and Stuart's words) "illogical" and "faith-based." (For example, they recount a scene in which celebrity ad guy Donnie Deutsch assesses, before a large crowd of marketing pros, a Web-centric campaign he'd recently designed: " 'We got about 600,000 clicks. Was that great or was that not great? We told the client it was great, so it was great.' [Nervous laughter.]") Sensing that marketing is "broken," What Sticks resolves to take a clear-eyed, data-reliant, let's-fix-this-thing approach.

It feels almost revolutionary. The most successful marketing books these days tend to read like fuzzy-headed self-help guides. Look at last year's The Big Moo, in which currently hot (and wildly prolific) marketing guru Seth Godin compiles writing from several other famous business/marketing gurus (including Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters, and Guy Kawasaki). The Big Moo uses cocktail party anecdotes to illustrate how to do things like "remarkablize your organization." A little story about Harry Houdini's magic act is meant to teach us the value of "making an original choice when there seems to be no choice at all." A cute tale about the inventor of the "Apgar score" (a diagnostic test given to newborn babies) is meant to show us that sometimes you find breakthroughs in "the places you least expect." Other anecdote subjects (each enlisted to illustrate another highly unremarkable bromide): Rockport shoes, recumbent bicycles, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Why is this anecdote-laden style so popular with business authors, and so successful (to the tune of best-selling books and huge speaking fees)? I think it comes down to two things: 1) Fascinating anecdotes can, just by themselves, make you feel like you've really learned something. ("Hey, now I know what an Apgar score is, and where it came from! Who cares if this knowledge has zero application to my business?") 2) A skillful anecdote-wielder can trick us into thinking the anecdote is prescriptive. In fact, what's being sold is success by association. It's no coincidence that The Big Moo talks about the iPod—a recent mega-hit we're all familiar with—in at least three chapters. It's tempting to believe that bite-sized anecdotes about how the iPod was conceived, or designed, or marketed will reveal the secret formula for kicking butt with our own projects. Of course, it's never that simple. An anecdote is a single data point, and often a shaky one at that.

By contrast, What Sticks draws its prescriptions from a vast ocean of data points. Briggs and Stuart examined the marketing techniques of 30 major corporations, analyzed more than $1 billion in ad spending, and studied the effect of those ads on more than 1 million consumers. I'm in no position to assess their methodology here, but they've at least poured their faith into research and data, not catchphrases and stories. The book strives to find those parts of marketing that can be measured, and then to measure them. Yes, their conclusions are sometimes less than revelatory. (The first third of the book boils down to: Set specific goals for your advertising and then have regular meetings to assess your progress toward these goals.) But that's not to say they aren't good advice.

Consider the book's recommendations on media mix. Based on their research, Briggs and Stuart argue that an advertising message heard three different times in a single medium (for example, a television commercial you see three times) will be far less effective than a message experienced one time apiece in three different media (for example, as a TV commercial, then as a print ad, and then as an online banner ad). The numbers prove beyond doubt that this "surround-sound" approach is a winner. A few other data-based findings: It's generally better to show your product name and logo for the duration of an ad, not just at the very end. (Though Nike, famous for revealing the Swoosh logo only in the last moments of its TV spots, might disagree.) Also, the time of day can have a profound effect on a consumer's response to an ad (e.g., a McDonald's ad airing at lunchtime will be far more productive than one airing in the evening). And finally, online ads (and particularly large, intrusive ones) are far more effective than most people realize. (Remember that the next time Slate's whole home page turns into a hockey rink or a spaceport or whatever.)

Where What Sticks fails us is on the content side. Sure, the numbers can tell you where best to run your ads, and how often, and at what time of day. What they can't do, apparently, is tell you how to make your ads funny, or charming, or cool. It could be this doesn't even matter, and the important part is to get all the measurable stuff right. (Look at the HeadOn headache remedy ads, which simply repeat the product's name over and over, to the point of madness, and yet achieve their purpose more effectively than 99 percent of the witty/clever/stylish ads I see on TV.) Whatever the case, the book makes no attempt to solve the riddle of creativity.

Perhaps only anecdotes are suited to that job. So, I'll offer one of my own (and if this spurs you to pay me massive speaking fees, well, so be it):

In 1983, legendary screenwriter William Goldman wrote a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade. He offered tips on how to shape a script and recounted stories from his decades in the business. Having by this time written the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men, it seemed that Goldman, better than almost anyone else, understood the recipe for Hollywood success. Yet despite Goldman's efforts to provide useful rules of thumb, and some constructive advice, the enduring legacy of Adventures in the Screen Trade remains a simple, three-word quotation.

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