Waste is magnificent

This article originally appeared on the Amsterdam Ad Blog.

Waste refers to the portion of advertising budget that seems lavish and unnecessary. It represents the world’s most widely held beliefs in advertising. That half of all advertising dollars are misspent. Jeremy Bullmore of WPP calls it a “superstition”. Not just because there’s no evidence that the retailer John Wanamaker actually said that. But in a hundred years, there’s no evidence that companies that spent twice as much as they needed to on advertising suffered as a result. Yet the belief remains; that waste should be cut.

There’s only one problem: it’s the waste that adds to the effectiveness of an ad.

Take a peacock’s tail. It seems lavish, serves no functional purpose, and is counterproductive to its survival. But the tail also sends out a signal to peahens. “I’ve survived in spite of this huge tail; hence, I’m fitter and more attractive than others.” This is what biologists call “the handicap principle.” Across the animal kingdom, such lavish displays signal biological fitness.

Similarly, people are attracted to brands that invest in lavish displays, such as Superbowl commercials or recession-time advertising, because such extravagance signals a successful brand. Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy points to Darwinian psychology, which shows that people attach huge significance to “brand-bling, confidence, display and conscious waste.” Which implies that companies with money to spare and expensive reputations rarely produce bad products. The relationship between waste and effectiveness is the subject of Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier’s paper, suitably titled, “The Waste in Advertising Is the Part That Works.” Hence, the investment, the waste itself, is what makes the ad reliable.

That’s why, when our industry compared itself with Hollywood, and aspired for “magnificence”, it created advertising that had impact. Sure, many called it wasteful and indulgent. But it got people talking. Cabbies spoke about it. Kids spoke about it. Sometimes prime ministers spoke about it. It made brands famous. People buy brands they’ve heard of because fame is a huge source of reassurance. Brands like Coca-Cola, Levi’s, BMW, Heineken, Nike and Virgin are famous because their lavish exposure exceeds categories and audiences deliberately. Everyone knows them, not just those who buy or use them.

And then marketers rushed to adtech; whose breed of snake oil salesmen treated advertising as a science, replacing creativity and intuition with rationality and data. Their weapon of choice, targeting. An elixir that attempts to limit the exposure of advertising to those already or potentially in the market for any given product. Ridiculous enough to compound people’s existing decisions by repeatedly showing them what they’ve already decided against.

Adtech’s promise of effectiveness, and claim to know which half of the advertising budget is wasteful proved too tempting. For the chance to be successful with limited or no advertising at all seemed too good to be true. Why would a marketer continue to spend huge amounts of money to reach millions, many of whom may have no interest in the category, let alone the brand?

A case to cut the waste in advertising.

But numbers prove otherwise. Real brand growth, across almost all categories, comes not from loyalists, but from occasional users. This is the subject of Professor Byron Sharp’s book, How Brands Grow. For instance, most of Coca-Cola’s sales come from occasional drinkers; the ones who buy it just once or twice a year. Surely, these people aren’t likely to do anything, let alone engage, with the brand online. Hence, adtech’s claim to fame, to cut waste by specifically targeting people, such as loyalists, based on their online behaviour, is not only statistically ineffective, but kills the very signal a brand needs to send out to everyone in order to find fame.

So just as animals use wasteful characteristics to signal their biological fitness, excesses in advertising signal brand strength. Precisely the part that adtech wants to cut. The writer Don Marti notes that targeting not only “burns out” a medium, but also turns an ad into the “digital version of a cold call.”

Admen like Bullmore recognise that publicists have known this instinctively. When the Beatles came to the US in 1964, their manager, Brian Epstein, didn’t set up a series of targeted interviews on fan magazines. Instead, he got them three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, with an audience of about seventy million for each show. Only a fraction of them might have gone on to buy a Beatles record or a ticket. But it’s unlikely that Epstein thought of this exposure as wasted.

It’s become more obvious to spot the bluff on adtech’s delusional claims. Which are clearly not as effective as they may seem. But the damage is done. It has successfully replaced our industry’s once exciting, Hollywood-esque aspirations of creating exposure and fame with a boring, unambitious aspiration of being accountable.

Perhaps it’s time we reconsider our industry’s aspirations, and convince our friends that cutting the waste in advertising means cutting the part that works. The part that actually builds brands.

Don’t lose your feathers. They’re what makes you dazzle.

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