The Thinking Person's Guide to Media, Chapter One: What is Advertising, Anyway?

by , Feb 27, 2007, 1:53 PM
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What's happening online is fueling a philosophic debate.

If an ad falls into the consumer's consciousness and there's no one around to measure it, does it make a brand impression?

When Bob Coen took the stage in a midtown Manhattan ballroom last December to present his outlook for the advertising business in 2007, his movements were a little frailer and his voice a lot softer than anytime in the past 66 years that he has made his annual predictions. Coen, the octogenarian director of forecasting at Universal McCann and Madison Avenue's de facto scorekeeper, is now older than a lot of the media he tracks, and some think that might be reflected in the way he views the role of a few of the new forms of advertising.

It's something that has grown apparent in recent years when, after presenting his forecast, Coen was grilled by young Wall Street analysts probing why his numbers for online advertising are comparatively low, and how he accounts for things like the rapid growth of search. In the past, Coen was flummoxed by this question, saying he didn't understand what search was and therefore did not factor it into his calculations.

But there was something different and more deliberate about Coen as he presented this year's forecast on a stage at the Grand Hyatt, dressed in his trademark blue suit, his shock of hair whiter than Father Time's. He was a man on a mission, and his quest was to resolve a fundamental philosophical debate about advertising, and more specifically, on the role Internet search is playing in its growth.

"It isn't advertising," Coen declared minutes into his presentation, an assertion that seemed to send his audience of young Wall Street turks atwitter. And then, as if anticipating their questions, he offered the ultimate proof, flashing the cover of a 1942 academic tome that has defined advertising for more than half a century.

The book, The Economic Effects of Advertising, written by Harvard advertising professor Neil H. Borden, was the culmination of a series of academic research studies begun in the late 1930s, and funded by the widow of Alfred Erickson, one of the founders of McCann-Erickson.

Early detractors of advertising, Coen said, saw the craft as a form of immoral propaganda leading people to spend their limited money on things they did not need. But the academics concluded that advertising increased competition, helped to lower costs and brought more goods and services to the public.

The question on the minds of some new-media economy executives in the room while Coen spoke was whether that seminal definition had run its course, and whether Madison Avenue hadn't entered a new era that was being driven by new technologies and new methods of marketing to consumers.

To Coen, the answer is no, because search, like certain forms of direct marketing and consumer promotion, doesn't fulfill the original definition of advertising (see page 33). Or it could be that one philosophical view of advertising is dying and being replaced by a new, as yet undefined philosophy that may forever change how we think of the role of Madison Avenue.

Coen's attempt to clarify a traditional view of advertising only serves to underscore a widening rift within the advertising industry about how it sees itself, and perhaps more importantly, how it views the role of its craft in the greater scheme of things. It's not merely a business question, but an existential one: What is advertising? And, to borrow from a Zen riddle: If an ad falls in the consumer's consciousness but there's no one around to measure it, does it make a brand impression?

At a time when marketers and agencies alike are racing toward the immediacy of demonstrable ROI, the direct response nature of search, e-commerce, and database marketing may be surpassing the original intent of creating and building enduring brands. It is a philosophical debate that has only just begun, but as contributor Joe Marchese outlines in the story that follows, the resolution of that debate may fundamentally alter how we think of advertising, and how advertising budgets are spent.

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