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I’m both an NFL fan and an advertising fan, so the Super Bowl poses a real dilemma for me: When is the best time to use the bathroom? If I go during the game, I risk missing a big play. If I go during a break, I risk missing a commercial everyone will be talking about the next day. It certainly doesn’t help that the beverage of choice for football games is beer.
Anyway, I took my chances this year and got lucky. I didn’t miss any big plays or any great commercials. Sadly, the latter would have been impossible: There weren’t any great commercials. Super Bowl ads keep getting more expensive (30 seconds cost $5 million this year), but they aren’t improving. There may actually be an inverse correlation.
That terrible waste of advertising money, combined with a recent experience I had in the field, caused me to revisit a fundamental question: What is advertising? More precisely, what is its purpose?
From what I saw, the consensus is that advertising is some bizarre form of entertainment. In conference rooms, this is no doubt described as “connecting with consumers” or another such euphemism. Others might define advertising as a way to build brands, create awareness, and/or remind people that a product or service exists. But is any of that the correct answer?
Going deeper, I was recently reacquainted with the life of Albert Lasker, the man widely regarded as the father of modern advertising. In 1904, while still a rising star at the Lord & Thomas agency, Lasker became keenly interested in this question. As the legend goes, one day he intercepted a message from an unknown copywriter named John E. Kennedy, a former Canadian Mountie. Kennedy’s note was written to the head of the agency and was so ridiculously bold that it would surely have gone into the trash if Lasker hadn’t been around. The note read: “I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bell boy.”
His curiosity piqued, Lasker went and met with Kennedy. During their meeting, Kennedy revealed his answer in just three words. Advertising, he said, is “salesmanship in print.” Since print is no longer the dominant advertising medium, we can summarize this even further: Advertising is salesmanship. Its purpose is to sell.
Like all game-changing insights, this one sounds too simple and obvious. Yet it proved incredibly powerful. History shows that Lasker used it to take over the advertising world. David Ogilvy would later write: “Albert Lasker made more money than anyone in the history of the advertising business.” Besides such personal achievements as buying his agency by the age of 32 and being inducted into the American National Business Hall of Fame, Lasker revolutionized his industry and had a significant impact in the world of philanthropy as well. No less than 80 recipients of Lasker grants went on to receive a Nobel Prize.
Returning to this year’s Super Bowl, it’s obvious that the advertising industry has forgotten about Lasker and Kennedy. That is, there was little if any selling going on. That’s not just my opinion, either. A 2012-2013 study found that 80 percent of Super Bowl ads did not lead to actual purchases—and that was back when it cost a mere $4 million for 30 seconds.
So what’s the solution? How can advertisers today apply a definition of advertising that originates from more than 100 years ago? My bias will be obvious, but I suggest they study our particular discipline. Direct response is the epitome of the salesmanship ideal. DR advertising is all about selling. It is, in fact, measured in sales. Moreover, we can say with confidence that 100 percent of our ads (that make it past the inexpensive testing phase) lead to actual purchases. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be airing them.
Kennedy would be proud.
Photo by vectorolie/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Jordan Pine is a consultant specializing in short-form DRTV and the author of the industry blog The SciMark Report.