At least not in the way most people think it does.
Some people think it’s a complete waste of money because it doesn’t really do anything. The truth is people do buy things because of an ad they saw. They do buy more expensive brands because of how they perceive them. People do actually stay and watch commercials they like, before switching the channel or fast forwarding their DVR.
On the other end of the spectrum, others think that advertising has the power to fool and deceive others. The truth is that advertising has become so ubiquitous that most people barely pay attention to it, much less are unwittingly duped by preposterous promises. People are simply much more skeptical about all media, whether it’s an ad, a Facebook post, the latest in news in US Weekly, or even Presidential press conferences.
So what can advertising really do?
Advertising can help to make people aware of things they didn’t know existed. This is generally the first and primary purpose of advertising. It’s not so useful for Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart. I doubt that if they stopped all advertising that people would simply forget who they were. However, for new companies and brands, it’s probably the easiest way to get exposure. PR can be difficult to get unless you have a truly interesting product or strong connections to reporters. Content Marketing and Social Media takes time to build a significant following. With advertising, you buy eyeballs. Not exactly cheap, but it works.
Advertising can help to reinforce people’s already held beliefs. As a business professor would say, that’s Confirmation Bias. People are more likely to seek out and pay attention to things that already fit within their preexisting beliefs. People really want to believe there’s an easy, inexpensive, quick, and non-painful way to lost weight. When a product promises just that, they want to believe it, so they do. The ad didn’t change their mind, it just fulfilled what they were already looking for.
Advertising can help to make people like your company (or not). Much like meeting a person in real life, people make a split decision on whether they like someone/something or not based off of fairly limited information. Once that impression is set, it takes a lot of time and multiple exposures to change that opinion. A TV spot is a 30-second meeting in passing with a person. It’s barely an introduction. It’s more like being at a party and getting introduced along with 5 other people at the same time to someone. It’s a big party and more than likely you won’t get to have a long conversation with them. After the party, even if you see each other again, neither of you will really remember where you’ve met before or the context. So all you really have is that first impression. Make it count.
Now, one might ask: What about competitive advantage? What about call to action? What about positioning and brand image? Isn’t that what’s advertising’s for?
Yeah, those concepts are important to provide frameworks for what we do. However, in the end, we’re all just sitting at a party trying to get noticed.