Here in China, one of my guilty pleasures is watching DVDs of old episodes of "Mad Men," the cable television hit about the glory days of advertising and mass media in the 1960s.
In one episode, when Don Draper's advertising firm loses the multimillion-dollar Lucky Strike cigarette account, he takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times to announce that the firm will no longer accept tobacco advertising, supposedly because tobacco endangers the public health.
The power of display advertising
Draper has no doubt about the importance of announcing this to the public at large even though the target audience for the ad is very small, perhaps 1% of the audience of the Times -- other advertising executives, the CEOs of tobacco firms and other major advertisers, the firm's own clients.
Of course in the early 1960s, there were not a lot of places to advertise, but Draper could have chosen a niche publication such as an advertising trade magazine. Why spend the extra money for the "waste audience" of a mass medium like the Times? Partly because the big splash will make a bigger impression on the small target audience and partly to reach other "influencers" not in the target audience as defined by the research.
Which half of advertising is wasted?
The old joke is that a department store owner early in the 20th century was convinced that half his advertising expenditure was wasted, he just didn't know which half.
With digital advertising, he can know exactly how much. And a recent study by Comscore shows that 31 percent of online ads are never seen.
The point is not that so much is wasted. The point is that the potential audience for any ad is always small. A luxury car brand might advertise every week in a publication knowing that the percentage of the audience ready to buy a car at that moment might be small.
The point is to plant the idea. Brand advertising does that. It is harder to measure than clicks on ads (less than 1 percent of page views on average). And people swear that they never see the ads online. Do they swear the same about print advertising? No one seems to ask the question.
The marketing and advertising companies that take the time and trouble to measure the impact of their advertising through surveys of brand recall can provide plenty of proof of the effectiveness of brand advertising (as opposed to "call to action" advertising such as a limited time sale).
For some reason, advertisers and critics of digital media seem to expect that every single ad impression on the web should result in a sale. The truth, as the fictional Don Draper knew, is that he was speaking to a small audience but he wanted to do so in a loud voice that called attention to the message. He knes that reaching that small audience was worth every dollar spent when the message was bold and creative.
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