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  • Writer's pictureZach Wilkins

A Little Bit About Advertising

Starting this post spurred several thoughts. The first thought was that I'd like to talk about what I've learned over the years, given that I'm chilling with cereal mascots and pictures of influencers all day. The second thought was that I surprised myself with how little I know about the industry, yet that's what I analyze day in, day out. The last question I had for myself was, "How can people spend their lives in an industry and get so hyper-specialized that they end up knowing so little about how or why their industry works?" I also have complicated feelings about the purpose of advertising in the world, especially when it involves tracking individuals, the deviousness of some platforms who are driven by advertisers, and infringing on privacy. I'll talk more about each of these in future posts, but let's start with the reason I made it all the way here: talking about what I do know when it comes to promoting your brand.

The pieces that I don't know much are at the higher-levels, things you'd learn in school. What is the purpose of advertising? Where does it fit in marketing? How do you actually go about getting approval, having a team or agency make an ad, figure out where to air or place it, and then track it over its lifetime? The only question I feel prepared to answer is how different types of ads affect behaviors and perceptions. I can also shed some light on how several common methodologies don't really do that well.

Let's get right into it. Obviously, the endgame of big advertisers is to drive sales. However, there are many different strategies to get there. Your choices really start with the company or brand's representation. Many have mascots, spokespeople, mnemonics, colors, and so forth. This is their theme that they show to public. Sometimes it changes depending on the target demographic, like for companies who sell to consumers and directly to businesses. However, this is the foundation. Branding gets used everywhere, but its entire existence is to pull in more dollars. Cynically, branding is a weapon of persuasion. It slowly indoctrinates you into its world, eventually changing your feelings and actions in advertisers' favor. I tend to think that we don't spend enough time pulling up the covers of complexity and seeing what kind of interesting rollie pollies are prancing. Anyway, branding is a tool that each "brand" has. Some make big, grandiose, creative worlds as their branding. Others have fewer resources or choose a plainer path.

When it comes to big name advertising, there's no lack of creativity in branding. There are a thousand little worlds that companies want to get you into. The more you relate to what these brands are trying to tell you, the more you're into hot dog fanfic, the more you tweet about the realms they've built, the better off these brands usually are. Advertising does a great job telling small stories over the course of weeks, months, and even lifetimes. Ads run in campaigns. These are cohesive groups of advertisements, often on different platforms, that help show different angles of some story they want to tell you. Partly, it helps to not be completely overwhelmed by the exact same ad everywhere you go, as that would be debilitating and Orwellian. Also, it helps an audience engage and internalize your better. Stories become more salient as you've engaged with them longer and from richer angles. Imagine reading Harry Potter, but it's only the parts about Harry. And then it's only the second book. Worse, it's written on a commemorative coupon insert. That's how bad advertising might work. Good advertising might start from The Sorcerer's Stone, telling the most interesting parts about Hogwarts and the goings-on there in 30 seconds, then running radio announcements coming down from Hogwarts' administration, and having some Hulu shorts show the rest of the young guns teaming up with Harry to tackle some wizarding. Campaigns really help with cohesion. They give you multiple angles to absorb a common message. Of course, campaigns can be wholly discordant, totally underfunded, unimpactful, or just badly designed at the base-level.

Some campaigns last for more than a decade, others just for a short season. Brands like Corona and Geico have run extremely long campaigns (sandy beaches, cavemen). Success can be a double-edged sword, where the message becomes stale and holds no persuasion. In fact, oversaturation can come in several forms: blunt-force trauma (seeing the same avocado ad on Hulu 75 times in a single rerun of King of the Hill) and over-messaging (talking about 5 different things the brand does, trying to depict it as cool, useful, prideworthy, sexy, and down-to-Earth) are two versions. The recognition that these long-running campaigns offer is hard for some marketers to change. It's a big risk, even when it's known that the persuasion is no longer there. What if no one recognizes your brand on TV anymore because the ads are so different from what's been running since the Dark Ages? This leaves many brands in an odd position of running the same campaign forever. The more common problem is never getting something to catch on in the first place. Some categories have huge branding problems where all brands in the space use the color blue and loudly scream that they have no soul. Others are just extremely run-of-the-mill and you'll have no memory of their work five minutes after your last exposure to them. Campaigns are the basis for measuring the effects of advertising.

Of course, every ad is still a building block of a campaign. Each one is an opportunity to tell a tale, dance a diddy. Still, these roll up into a whole campaign. For many viewers, they only receive exposure to one component, if any at all. The campaign's intensity, how many different components you see and how many times you see them, is probably the single-most important metric for change. The more, the better up to a point. Intensity works much better when the campaign creatively connects on some level. This intensity effect is nullified if the campaign lacks cohesion, and sometimes an ad's benefits get credited to a competitor. Strangely, confusion is so common. We tune out so much of advertising because it's not very relevant or interesting. It's also perceived as invasive. Each ad has an important opportunity to leave good impressions and convey key information. Completely irrelevant, dull, unmemorable ads have monstrous negative effects. Streamlined messaging, relevance, uniqueness, and strong emotional connections are surely helpful. What's surprising is that ads that cause visceral reactions like disgust and anger are some of the best out there. Part of the reason is that these test some social norm in some way that makes the audience uncomfortable. These might be overly sexualized, go against norms like manners and sharing food, or be brazenly outrageous Always Sunny in Philadelphia style. Very few advertisers go this route, but it's a very effective strategy for having people remember your ad, your brand, and the messages conveyed. Much of my work is spent uncovering the best ways to advertise--what emotions to convey, how many messages to push, which platforms to use, how much exposure it takes to be successful, which groups to target with what. There are myriad tactics for choosing what each ad should say, what its purpose is, how it should make these statements.

What needs to be remembered is that a ton of money and effort go into these huge initiatives that have almost no effect. Advertising works very slowly. Think about yourself. How often have you seen something on TV and jumped out the door? "Wow, I'm convinced, I gotta have that!" Most likely never. After the course of a campaign, advertising explains a single-digit percentage of behavioral and attitudinal changes. What's important to note is that this is still a very large number. If you can do that 5 times a year, the population will have significantly changed. Since advertising usually reaches millions of people, though, even small changes carry hefty dollar values.

A forgotten piece of the puzzle is the targeting. Advertisements tend to get exposed to people who already like the brand, have been recently exposed, or are incapable of spending any more on it. This is a wasted opportunity. There are often tons of non-purchasers or people unfamiliar with the brand that are much more likely to change their opinions based on ads (usually a small change still). People in this bucket are usually declining. Fewer exposures mean that a brand isn't top-of-mind and they've likely not been interacting with it either. At the same time, those who are already at the ceiling of their love for a brand need constant exposure of fresh ideas to keep this brand in their immediate thoughts. It's all a balancing game. Brand lovers usually have little room for growth, but drop if they're not watched like a hawk. Brand newcomers are not thinking about this brand at all, but are harder to reach and take some investment time to build a rapport with. This constant rebalancing is why you're being hounded endlessly. What makes it worse is that our brains are excellent at tuning out irrelevant noise, so ads need to do some Pokemon-style attacks on you just to get partial attention. Therefore, does it not make sense why advertisers are pouring billions of dollars a year just to get your attention?

Finally, let's get down to it: does advertising even work? It certainly does have a small immediate effect. This effect can be compounded over time. But, it's often the case that these changes are of questionable value. First, it costs quite a bit to get an ad out there. TV ads are the most expensive, and it only gets worse if you have specific targets who are uncommon. These can be in the tens of millions. Digital ads and paid content are usually of minimal cost, but they have a general problem of lacking quality and have false-positive exposures (digital ads may count an exposure if someone goes to the page they're on, but never makes it to the specific ad--think of a long article where the ad is at the bottom, but you leave halfway through). Another issue is that folks might feel much more positively about a brand, but take never take meaningful action. The methods that exist to quantify the value of advertising are either hand-wavy or have no way of controlling for important factors. Mix modelling does an okay job measuring advertising effects on a macro scale, but it leaves so much unanswered. I work with longitudinal data with the same people from before and after a campaign. Answers are much easier to get for an individual, but we rarely have a way to see their real-world actions. However, intention metrics are correlated with actual purchasing, so we use questions like this as a proxy. This forced estimation puts in a better situation to talk about how advertising works for the brand than it does for accounting for lift in sales. This methodology gets precise changes in intentions, awareness, attitudes, and usage. It also measures what proportion actually saw the campaign and allows for deeper investigations into which combinations of ads worked and why. Mix can say no such thing. Other methodologies measure different people over each period of time, leaving a lot to inferred. It also can't isolate how those unexposed to advertising changes versus those who are exposed. A common story is that the brand or its category are falling, but advertising is greatly softening it. This would be impossible to see without knowledge of these exposure groups. So, I can say "yes". Advertising does work, but every situation is different for how it is working. It is also a very slow, expensive endeavor.

Hopefully this view of the advertising landscape at least gives some insight. There's so much that goes into it, and I've that I know very little about the process before it is released to the world. I'll come back and give some other thoughts, but this long read covers quite a few areas of the field.

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