Notes from the 4A’s Media Conference, Orlando, Florida
By Erwin Ephron
Orlando is a theme park so I searched for the theme. Hard Rock. It was right there in the name of my Hotel. Hard Rock, as in the green times are gone. A song crossed my mind. Our Zeppelin is Led, but it still has to fly.
Gone also was the legendary spunkiness of all things advertising. Only a spark here and there from dot-com survivors, beaming like a homeless who has just hit the Lotto.
Business was good, yet this was a meeting of Teamsters who were losing the docks. Everyone telling them to do something different, but no one telling them what different to do. Not as long as that great shipwreck called television sat tall in the harbor.
We were beginning to understand that advertising, the mother-lode, doesn’t work wonders. In fact it often doesn’t work well at all. But it once did work wonders, and that cultural memory walked the long halls.
America’s belief in advertising has deep roots. “It pays to advertise” was our slogan of choice from the 1931 Carole Lombard comedy rallying business through the Great Depression. And even back then the thought wasn’t new, just a remake of a 1919 pre-talkie from Paramount-Lasky.
After all, advertising
made money move. It created goals, raised expectations, brought delight,
defined society for good or bad. Television in particular
was a guide to growing up as a family and as a people.
A Machine that Does the Dishes?
TV advertising of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s was more interesting, more informative and far more effective. It was part of the dialogue of daily life. Example, Westinghouse Studio One.
I remember my mother’s fascination with the sponsor’s astonishing claims for a machine that does the dishes. An old hand at machine washing clothes, mother felt the spin cycle would do the dishes in. She silently debated the matter with spokes-lady Betty Furness for months and finally bought a Westinghouse.
Dish-washers don’t fascinate my wife. She grew up with them. When the one we have breaks, she’ll buy another.
That’s not the fault of advertising. We are a wise old consumer society. Much of what we buy is so familiar there’s little place for news, fresh promise or surprise. As a result advertising today, with all its excesses and press, tends to be a weak marketing force, especially compared to what it was once able to do.
If there is a crisis in advertising, it’s one of expectations. We expect a lot from advertising and often the box is delivered half empty.
If you really want the good old days when ads moved product off the shelf, go to India, Romania or Pakistan where they’re learning how to shop. That’s where the new Ted Bates’ are hanging out, and there are no footprints on the snow. 
Bring in the Clowns
Meanwhile, back at the meeting, talk turned to accountability and ROI. Isn’t Accountability a vague, mean-spirited word implying malfeasance, when the issue is more often diligence and luck? Accountability goes with responsibility, so when decisions are shared so must be the blame.
Advertisers want advertising that works, but
often have no firm commitment about how to accomplish that. An operations researcher
was hired by a major
brewery to benchmark its advertising practice. After long study, the expert’s
data showed the probability of a campaign increasing brand share was one in
twenty. But it got worse. The probability of management selecting that particular
campaign was also one in twenty, making the true odds 400 to one. A folk-tale?
Media People Should be More Proud
Media people should be more proud. In this world of uncertain response and weak effects, we’ve contributed more than most. We understood well before the message-writers, that in a developed consumer society, the role of most advertising is to nudge people towards one of the brands they already know, when they are ready to buy.
That means when the message is received is more important than how many times it’s sent, i.e., if you’ve just leased a Toyota, the volume of Nissan commercials you see doesn’t much matter.
Media people know Continuity creates Serendipity. A message works simply because it’s there when the consumer is ready. And it can’t be there if you’ve already spent the money beating on the consumer’s head.
Media planners know there’s segmentation among brand categories, just as there’s segmentation among consumers. If net dollars returned to advertising (ROI) is the measure, advertising will work better for huge brands like telecommunications, where there are new products, high margins and economies of scale. Less well for packaged goods which are poorly differentiated, small brands operating in markets long-in-the-tooth.
But a low ROI may not mean waste. Most packaged-goods ad dollars are spent to protect, not to grow the business. In that land simply sustaining the budget may be a better measure of success than growing the ROI.
Media planners have learned that continuity and dispersion in advertising are the Great Goods, and that too many messages in too short a time is a great waste of money. These simple thoughts will continue to save advertisers millions.
We learned at Orlando that there are familiar questions, but no new answers. We felt the threat of technology more than its wonder. It was a cautious meeting as befits changing times.
I remember a retail client who used to say “Business is great, but I’m not worried,” carefully balancing his message between the creditors he needed and God, who he feared.
It’s not a bad approach for now.
 Of the 3,500 weekly visits to my website www.Ephrononmedia.com, close to 900 come from what the world regards as underdeveloped countries.
- March 1, 2004 -