In good times, companies spend a great deal of money on PR and advertising, most of it poorly thought out and saying nothing of value to the market. In bad times, like those we have recently been through, advertising gets cut back and public relations carries the brunt of marketing messaging.
But with lower advertising revenues, publications go out of business making editorial pages scarce and making competition for PR stronger. It is crucial that companies change their conventional marketing wisdom in communicating to the customer. So, let's start with some basics, like the purpose of advertising.
The conventional wisdom on the purpose of advertising is to increase sales. That is wrong. Increasing sales is the product of good advertising, not its purpose. The purpose of advertising is much different.
Advertising is a relatively new thing in the history of the world. The first known paid advertisement was in a New England newspaper in 1704 (Make that paid advertisement in the US. First in the world was apparently in England in 1622. Thanks to Duncan Chapple for that.) Prior to that, all newspapers survived on what people would pay for them and out of the pockets of their owners, who generally had side businesses. The 1704 ad probably wasn't very successful because no one tried advertising again until the 1760s. That's when Benjamin Franklin bought the Philadelphia Gazette and made it the first vehicle of mass communication supported by advertising.
Franklin's concept was that the free exchange of ideas and information was essential to the growth and health of the economy and, therefore, should be supported by business. The Gazette was an enormous success. The expense of producing the paper was covered by advertisers, so the cost to readers was virtually eliminated. Everyone could afford to buy the paper. That increased the number of people who would see the advertising and grow the market. At the same time, there was a seemingly independent voice that could affirm messages stated by the advertisements.
So, the purpose of advertising is to underwrite the free exchange of ideas and information in the marketplace. The fact that the advertiser is free to control the message is a benefit. That the publication’s independent voice is free to support or contradict that message is a consequence. The ability of the advertisement to increase sales is determined by the advertiser based on the advertiser's efforts. But without the publication, there is no opportunity to freely exchange ideas and information or control the message in the advertisement.
We are in an era, however, when advertisers lack resources to spend on ad programs that may or may not work or may or may not reach target audiences. The result is more concentrated efforts on direct mail, since it is less expensive. The problem with that is there is no independent voice validating the message of the direct mail. If the recipient is already inclined toward the advertiser, they will accept the messages. If not, it's trashed.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, the answer is not in the publications, Horatio, but in ourselves. If we are to successfully build on the reviving economy, we have to get our priorities correct. The ability to be profitable is based on our ability to strategically communicate a message to the market that will produce sales. The medium we choose to carry that message is not to blame.
Let's support the infrastructure, think about what needs to be said, and make our businesses successful.