Advertising Loses In A Mudslide

The prosecution rests.

For some years now, I have been arguing that advertising is losing its primacy in marketing. This is for a host of reasons, almost all of them arising from digital revolution. In dozens of articles, in hundreds of speaking dates around the world, in a previous book and now in a forthcoming one, I have explored the loss of reach, the loss of attention and above all the loss of trust converging to undermine paid messaging.

It should now be blindingly obvious to every marketer, and to more evolved bipeds, that nothing that comes out of the mouth of a brand or any other institution has remotely the influence of what comes from the mouths of 7 billion bystanders freely trading opinions online.

It now matters very little what you have to say about yourself via slogan, bombastic 30-second spot or pathetically unviral “viral” video. What matters is what the public has to say about you -- based on who the public believes you really are.  Which, once again, does not flow from your positioning or your strategy or your tagline. It flows from the brand self you project by all you do, and don’t do, in the actual world.



Or put another way, if people don’t like you, they are no longer eager to do business with you. And in a socially mediated world, not to mention a world of enforced transparency wherein your every move is searchable on Google in perpetuity, you can no longer advertise your way into their wallets, much less their hearts.

As I say, the evidence for these assertions will be cited chapter and verse this spring when Can’t Buy Me Like finally materializes. But -- know what? -- no need to wait. We have just experienced the mother of all case histories.

It came a week ago, and you probably noticed, because it was in all the papers. The presidential election was an electoral drubbing for the Romney campaign, a repudiation for the Republican Party, a humiliation for Karl Rove and his American Crossroads superPACS and a lethal blow to the notion of advertising persuasion. For the past nine months, advertising has intruded, advertising has thundered, advertising has invented, advertising has lied, advertising has smeared, advertising has pleaded, advertising has metastasized.

There is no evidence, based on Tuesday results, however, that it influenced a blessed thing. Persuade? Yes, particularly in the so-called battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado, it persuaded people to tune out advertising. Not a hard deal to close, that.

Let's look at the impact of the $408 million of superPAC money spent on behalf of Gov. Romney and other Republican candidates, according to the final tabulations of the Sunlight Foundation. Remember how the idiotic Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court (the one that called political spending protected speech) was going to place our fate in the hands of corporations and other special interests? Well, not so far. They foolishly spent the money on attack ads.

The Romney-affiliated Restore Our Future Inc. alone spent $143 million. Rove’s American Crossroads, $105 million. (Meanwhile, superPACS affiliated with the Democrats, chiefly Priorities USA Action, spent a combined $196 million.)

Rove’s superPACS poured cash not only into the failed Romney candidacy but eight Senate races. Six out of eight of those seats went to Democrats. In all, the Dems gained a net two Senate seats and most likely seven in the House. Crossroads, indeed.

The real crossroads here was the demographic reality of 2012 America. The GOP tried to talk to young voters, women, African-Americans (in one unintentionally hilarious spot, we were reminded that Lincoln was the Republican who ended slavery) and especially Latinos. But those messages didn’t resonate, because the Republican candidates’ body language -- including their political histories and astonishing gaffes (“legitimate rape”) -- belied the claims.

It’s hard to persuade Ohio autoworkers that you are a jobs creator when you agitated to bankrupt Detroit. And it’s impossible to reach out to Latinos when you first ask them to provide their documents.

We are now and forevermore in the Relationship Era. What the GOP proved, and what all marketers must at long last internalize, is that you can’t advertise yourself out of a bad relationship.


28 comments about "Advertising Loses In A Mudslide ".
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  1. Erika Kotite from Kotite Media Group LLC, November 12, 2012 at 10:30 a.m.

    I wonder if this will impact election advertising in the future. Also wondering what your thoughts are on when paid messaging still actually works well. Great post! I look foward to your book being published.

  2. Eric Daure from Topix LLC, November 12, 2012 at 11:18 a.m.

    I really like your column generally, and I personally agree with your premiss here re the wane of advertising influence. However, I don't think the evidence you give necessarily supports your conclusion. Yes, Romney's massive ad spends failed to win him the election. But Obama sent more, so form the evidence, it is entirely possible Ads DO work, and the that's why Obama won. I don't personally believe that - but my point is, the evidence you site does not necessarily lead to your conclusion.

  3. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, November 12, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.

    Amazing dose of truth here. I would argue the emperor has been naked for a lot longer than just last Tuesday, but perhaps Garfield's hammer here is tapping in the last couple of nails in the dead king's coffin itself.

    The good news is that there is a whole new generation of post-advertising marketing boys & girls coming up as we speak thru brands, agencies & platforms. I know because I have the honor of either teaching or hiring them.

    Be excited. Be very excited...

  4. Michael Foldes from Ragazine, November 12, 2012 at 11:31 a.m.

    Thanks for this... we've been carpet-bombed, and look at all the good it didn't do .... a lot of people made a lot of money -- guess that's where the trickle down comes in....
    B. rgds.,
    Mike F.

  5. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., November 12, 2012 at 11:35 a.m.

    Emerson: "What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say." To paraphrase a remark attributed to another Republican, "You cannot fool all of the people all of the time."

  6. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , November 12, 2012 at 11:36 a.m.

    great article . it also highlights that mistakes (auto bail out ;rape) can really be costly. In addition we and especially republicans in this case simply continue to ignore reality

  7. Kevin Gaydosh from O'Brien et al, November 12, 2012 at 11:39 a.m.

    Mr. Garfield presupposes solely that the pro-GOP/Romney advertisements failed, and doesn't contemplate (let alone factor in) that the advertisements of the Democratic party & supporters may have in fact WORKED in perpetuating stereotypes or portraying their adversaries in various races as they intended to do, be those messages factual or not.

    Also suggest that his personal bias is showing a bit as well by making the dangerous assumption that that 100% of what either other party said to those specific audiences was “true” and the other 100% false.

    I think the major point made was one that he swerved into almost by accident -- that in the future broadcast television ads will take a back seat to what’s being bantered about via social media. However, it remains to be seen how those visuals will be any different one one "idiot box" than another.

  8. Kevin Lee from Didit, November 12, 2012 at 11:45 a.m.

    It's interesting that the premise above includes the assertion that "if people don’t like you, they are no longer eager to do business with you," because Google's original algorithm was all about links being votes and not all votes being equal (based on reputation) and now current search algorithms are starting to factor in other voting signals, in particular using social media signals to supplement and validate the original link-voting relevance scores.
    However then as now, advertising, in particular good advertising plays a roll in activating and stimulating activity within the online social media and blogging ecosystem. So, Advertising isn't dead yet. ;-)
    Yet it clearly has become time for marketers (political or otherwise) to heed your advice and double down on what used to be called earned media but now is a bit more messy as bloggers and tweeters wield more power than some traditional. Your book should be on CMOs holiday list so they know what hits them when they get trounced.

  9. Tom Gray from WCMH, November 12, 2012 at 11:49 a.m.

    In truth, Obama began airing ads following the primaries and aired about 4 to 1 more ads than Romney in Ohio alone during his campaign. It was a similar trend in other battleground states, this would suggest TV advertising again played a major role in the outcome. Even though the Super PAC money heavily favored the republicans, their rates were significantly higher than the lowest unit rates candidates benefit from.

  10. Conservative Professor from I Built It, Inc., November 12, 2012 at 11:55 a.m.

    Balderdash! Companies are not allowed to lie in advertising. They have to prove claims made. Obama's ads were not filled with PUFFERY, they were filled with falsehoods. Political advertising is in a class of its own -- AND, the advertising of the Obama Campaign was in yet another class of its own -- low class.

  11. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 12, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.

    Bob, You've really missed the mark here. It's not a question of whether or not the advertising worked. It's simply a matter of a lousy product that all the ads in the world couldn't make better. No difference here than in a network's flawed premise that promos aired ad nauseam can somehow save a bad show from itself (i.e. TBS's promo overkill of the Frank Caliendo Show before it even started). In fact, I would contend - and I'm sure the Democrats would agree - that the Republican's advertising was very effective, despite the unintended consequences. It revealed the emperor and his subjects in all their naked glory and gave the social channels - and the voters lurking therein - something to chew on.

  12. Don Mitchell from Freelance Media Professional, November 12, 2012 at 12:24 p.m.

    When in doubt, quote Ogilvy - "Political advertising ought to be stopped. It's the only really dishonest kind of advertising that's left. It's totally dishonest." – David Ogilvy

  13. Thomas Fosgard from IZ-ON Media, November 12, 2012 at 12:37 p.m.

    I like the larger premise that we live in a world where there are so many competing messages and the role of advertising is changing. I don't want to get stuck in the details of this particular instance other than, to agree with Mike Einstein, sometimes its not the marketing, it's the product.

  14. Sean Tracey from Sean Tracey Associates, November 12, 2012 at 12:38 p.m.

    Bob, normally I think you make good points. This time, not. I agree with many of the respondents. Your conclusion is not supported by your evidence. Obama outspent Romney by nearly ads indeed may work. On another note, I think we should restrict political ads to 30 days prior to the election, and maybe even cap the spending per candidate to level the playing field.

  15. Tony Nino from PADV Pasadena Advertising, November 12, 2012 at 12:40 p.m.

    Thank you, Don. And maybe because David is dead, he's irrelevant, but there is another quote to consider.
    "Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising." - David Ogilvy
    The electorate has changed. The Republican message was aimed at the new minority. And insulted the new majority. Unfortunately, it worked brilliantly.

  16. David Gutting from Barkley, November 12, 2012 at 12:58 p.m.

    A number of commenters have made a similar point, so I'll keep it brief.

    One side wins and one side loses in an election. This one really wasn't that close (though it looked that way). One of the reasons it wasn't is because Obama used millions of dollars worth of TV ads in key swing states to define Romney as an out of touch plutocrat. It worked.

    Romney's advertising didn't--except in the sense that it put a lot of attention on a product that people had decided was no good.

    What people think about you has always mattered. It's just that what they think gets into much faster circulation. That doesn't mean that that thinking can't be influenced. It can.

  17. John Casey from Carmichael Industries, November 12, 2012 at 1:14 p.m.

    Bob, don't attribute Romney's loss to the lack of advertising's efficacy. 13MM fewer voters turned out for 2012 vs 2008 and 3MM Republicans stayed home this time compared with McCain in '08. Who knows how many Independents didn't show for Romney. Romney's problems may have much to do with Obama's ads or the "news" narrative put forth across the months. His Mormonism almost undoubtedly hurt him, too.

  18. James Boldebook from CBC, November 12, 2012 at 1:53 p.m.

    Bob, thats probably one of the dumbest commentaries ever written. What about the billion dollars (most from Super pacs) on the Obama side that lied, created gaffes, and advertised that there was nothing to worry about 23 million people unemployed (more than the day Obama took office) , 47 million on food stamps and growing, the fact that if dems got all the tax increases they wanted, we would still have a TRILLION DOLLAR deficit this year. Obama's side also did a great job on the obamacare lie that will put 30 million more people on the health care rolls without increasing nurses, doctors and facilities. I would say advertising did work. One side just lied better than the other.

  19. Paula Storti from Worldwalk Media, November 12, 2012 at 1:57 p.m.

    It isn't 100% an issue with advertising. Much of the problem is related to how it is being done.

    A) The country

    The US brand and advertising as a profession can't afford to support the wasted dollars and time created by this recent poorly executed election season.

    B) The brands

    Both the democratic and republican brands need to:

    1) Take a look at their product and improve it starting today at the brand level.
    2) Create incentives for and push Congress to be effective immediately.
    3) Explore methods to appear much more genuine as they craft any messaging as well as engage in a dialogue with their customer base throughout the process.
    4) They must craft positive messages. (As Bob points out)

    If they do not do these things more people will tune out and less people will be engaged in next election.

  20. Barry Kula from Kulam Enterprises, November 12, 2012 at 2:33 p.m.

    Nice try bashing advertising, however, the only thing the election results prove with respect to the Dem vs. Republican ad spend is that advertising remains as relevant as long as the product delivers on the (advertised) promise.

  21. John Grono from GAP Research, November 12, 2012 at 5:16 p.m.

    Bad advertising and bad products are losing whatever remnants of primacy they may have had. To extrapolate beyond that on such a narrow base of evidence is a vanity.

  22. Sheryl Pattek from Forrester Research, November 12, 2012 at 5:31 p.m.

    Whether or not you agree with Bob's position on the election, it is an interesting take on the role of advertising in the election.

    I had a different perspective on the message from the election that is relevant to B2B marketers and explored that in my recent blog post. It's data and how the Obama campaign used data that made all of the difference...for their advertising, the ground game and much more.

    Take a look and let me know your thoughts.

  23. Bill Burnett from Good Citizen Media Group, November 12, 2012 at 6:13 p.m.

    At its best Advertising is nothing more or less than communicating to the public about the existence of a product, service, or idea. It is not inherently dishonest or evil, and there still remains nothing as powerful as a well crafted Ad message with a clever or informative headline, graphic and tagline, repeated in many forms everywhere you turn. Political advertising is a beast unto itself that is ugly and generally suspect from the get-go. That's not the same thing as an ad for an iPad, which may or may not be a device that will open up many opportunities for people.

  24. James Signorelli from ESW Partners, November 13, 2012 at 9:16 a.m.

    I buy your premise that advertising has taken a back seat to other persuasive influences. However,
    I can't completely agree with your comments about the barrage of political advertising that we all recently experienced. In particular, I can't agree with your comment that "there's no evidence it influenced a blessed thing."
    Of course, there is no evidence that the money spent was 100% for naught either. Ads were ostensibly targeted at the undecideds. And arguments like yours will persist about whether they did any good. But what is often forgotten when talking about political advertising is its effect on those that have already made up their minds.
    Long, long ago, during the dark ages of advertising and before social media, we learned that advertising is far less effective at
    changing beliefs than it is at forming or reinforcing beliefs that can or do exist.
    I know from my own experience, and I don't think I'm alone, each time I saw an ad for the opposing candidate, I became more entrenched in my position. And with that, even more inclined to vote (if for no other reason than to keep the bad guy out of office). Additionally, I found myself looking for positive reinforcement in each ad that my candidate ran. I think it's fair to say that we all possess the ability to tell ourselves stories that fit within our existing world views, right or wrong, true or false, Democrat or Republican. Finding and subscribing to objective truth is not a skill we humans are really good at. Albeit there is little data to prove the point, I think it is worth a good guess that advertising's effect on our existing stories did have something to do with voter turnout.

  25. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, November 13, 2012 at 9:33 p.m.

    Fascinating that Bob Garfield condemns all advertising based on a specific enormous waste of advertising money. And, lacks the wisdom to turn that same harsh light onto digital media (which is a morass of overblown expectations that under-deliver economic power). Sad. Sorry, Bob, but this post is really bad.

  26. James Knight from iMA Strategies, November 14, 2012 at 7:30 a.m.

    Barrack Obama Connected with the American people who then gave him their time and attention,placed weight on what he said,focused on his strengths and voted for him. Mitt Romney didn't Connect.

  27. Collette Gillian from Social Media Strategy, November 15, 2012 at 12:56 a.m.

    Advertising - even the best advertising - cannot save a bad product. When the product can't live up to its promises, no amount of advertising will ultimately save it.

    Sure, the GOP paid lip service to their respect and admiration for women, minorities, and the working class. Meanwhile, none of them seemed to register the effect binders, legitimate rape, voluntary deportation, and the 47% had on alienating large swathes of the electorate.

    The fact is, the GOP has an enormous branding problem that advertising couldn't overcome. And the Romney/Ryan campaign had an enormous branding problem that advertising couldn't overcome.

    Advertising is most effective when it is synchronous with the promise and performance of the brand. "Message: we care" just isn't going to cut it today.

  28. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 2, 2012 at 7:42 p.m.

    The pre-Galilean mind set did not make mistakes. They meant every word of it. However, I do agree. Limits to political advertising on ALL TV stations is the key to limiting ads besides the absurdity of Citizens United. If you want to talk about the US losing clout in the world, it is a place to start...along with the pre-Galilean mind sets.

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