Maybe it's the books and blogs I read, or maybe it's the rise in popularity of the disaffected emo rocker in mainstream media, but it seems lately that everyone is declaring the death of advertising. Advertising is dead, the consumer reigns supreme, we get what we want and ignore advertising completely.

If you look at big spenders in advertising over the last years, companies like GM and Coca-Cola who's advertising budgets have increased but sales have dropped dramatically, you may be inclined to believe the naysayers.

A Lack of Credibility

In their latest book, The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR, Al & Laura Ries present a couple of very interesting points about traditional mass media advertising:

  • It lacks credibility - We know that ads are ads, and we view them with a grain of salt. Am I going to get exactly what is advertised? Will this product change my life? Probably not.
  • Its pretty but not persuasive - It's no secret that designers are out to be creative and win awards, and it's also no secret that ads that make us laugh don't necessarily persuade us to buy the products they tout. Budweiser spends more each year and has hilarious advertising, but sales have been giving way to Coors Light annually.

One Word Equity

In the Financial Times, Saatchi warns of the death of advertising, saying he believes it has been extinguished by a change in consumer culture and commerce. He believes, similar to Ries' theory from the 70's that brands need to occupy a single position in the consumers mind, and that their position can be summed up by one word. What is a unique word to describe each brand? Out of only 750,000 English words to choose from, there may be tough competition for major brands to capture their ideal position, and it's advertising's role to put this word in our minds.

Maybe I haven't read enough yet, but I'm unclear on how advertising, a medium that fundamentally lacks credibility, is meant to instill knowledge of and belief in this "one word equity" for each brand in our minds as consumers.

No Shortage of Sales

One would think that if advertising as it is were dying, we'd see a significant decrease in consumer spending, credit card debt, travel and generally unnecessary expenditures, but in his latest book author and fellow blogger Rob Walker shares that exactly the opposite is happening. Consumers are spending more, credit card debt is at an all time high, and products are flying off the shelves at record speed.

The Butterfly Effect

So if advertising is dead but products are selling every day by great new brands, what is going on?

As the ugly worm morphs into a butterfly late in it's life, I'm inclined to believe that advertising is changing, and not dying at all. Sure, consumers have more direct influence over new products, we're empowered by YouTube and blogging, but we still want to buy things, and we differentiate products from one another largely by their brand names.

Al & Laura offer the theory that public relations (PR) is the only credible way to build a brand, whereas advertising should be used to remind us of what we already know about the unique position in our minds that existing brands hold. Rob touches on something similar in his book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, when he talks about the salience of a brand: our awareness of it.

Public relations tools such as local news, newspapers, word of mouth, and magazines tend to deliver stories that people want to read, and more importantly, that people tend to believe. It makes sense then that PR is a more credible way to communicate a message than advertising, and that advertising is meant to re-inforce that message once it's been communicated.

What This Means for Web Professionals

This idea of public relations as the main vehicle for brand building gets me really excited as a web professional. We blog (public relations), we use Google Adwords (advertising), and we design businesses on the web through web applications. It's our job every day to design interactions with customers that can potentially form the backbone of direct customer and public relations. We can put words into people's minds about new products and ideas; and for those of us who are freelancers we can potentially do it all for much less money than traditional advertising firms, and with more credibility in the public relations world.

Moving On

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of this topic, so please share your ideas and opinions by writing commments, and don't forget to digg this if you found it interesting.