When Is It Pointless To Advertise?

Advertising remains a growth business, with annual global ad spend nearing half a trillion dollars. Digital advertising is growing even faster, thanks its ability to target consumers. Still, there are many situations when advertising can be pointless — and sometimes even harmful — for a brand. Here are some examples:

Corporate disaster. It’s often best for a company dealing with a nightmare situation to turn off its ad campaign and use corporate communications and PR to manage the issue at hand rather than trying to sell more stuff.

Natural disaster. Last fall during Superstorm Sandy, retailer American Apparel sent out a hurricane-themed direct mail piece to people in the New York area. They would have been better off just keeping quiet.

When there are other ways to sell something. A brand manager at a major CPG company once told me that improving the placement of his products in a store had a far greater effect on sales than advertising. Perhaps because of this, the majority of products at the local supermarket have no significant ad budgets behind them.



Wearing out a welcome. Cable television continues to have issues with capping the number of times the same ad will appear during a broadcast. Local sporting broadcasts are especially guilty of showing the same :30 unit over and over during a game.

Similarly, in online advertising, a poorly retargeted banner ad can follow a consumer around the Internet like flypaper.

Too costly. There are some search engine keywords too expensive for the smaller companies in a category to buy efficiently. It may make more sense to build traction for a product through word of mouth and then step on the gas later with advertising.

Seasonality. For some brands there are periods when it makes absolutely no sense to advertise. Pushing lawn-care products in winter and outerwear in summer are just two examples.

Startups. Even more than a decade later, the memories of dot-com companies blowing through millions of dollars in advertising are still fresh in minds of investors. Unless the return on investment can be proven, early-stage startup founders are usually wise to find other ways to spread the word about their product.

Beta products. Advertising a product too early in its lifecycle can be counterproductive. Ads can drive too much trial too early, potentially overwhelming the company and disappointing customers.

Cult followings. Early adopters of new products like to feel special. Consider carefully the timing and placement of mass advertising for such products.

Advertising can be incredibly effective. During the last recession, automaker Hyundai greatly accelerated its business thanks to increased ad spend and some brilliant messaging. But it’s also important to know when ramping up paid advertising can potentially damage a company.

4 comments about "When Is It Pointless To Advertise?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Michael Foldes from Ragazine, June 3, 2013 at 2:15 p.m.

    So, how to promote a bi-monthly cross-cultural literary and visual arts publication? When and where, without featuring water-skiing squirrels? Thanks, Mike F.,

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 3, 2013 at 4:50 p.m.

    If you don't have a marketing and advertising plan before with room to alter before one has a business, then that business will be in the percentage of failures. Get a day job Michael and use this magazine as your hobby and go back to school.

  3. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 4, 2013 at 4:41 a.m.

    Back then, the ROI of dot-com advertising *WAS* proven. At the time, markets were assigning very high lifetime values to list size, around $10-$100 per subscriber, and there were VCs willing to invest based on that. So if dot-coms could build their lists for (say) $5 per subscriber in advertising then the ROI was clear. But the proof didn't hold up.

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, June 4, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.

    Pete - I've got to quibble important semantics. If the "proof didn't hold up" then nothing was proven. DotComs were working on a theory about value that was unproven. But as a stampede they dashed into leveraging that unproven theory...only to find out the theory was wrong. Truth is, though, I think the only ROI many cared about was the ROI on IPO which was astounding for a few and nonexistent or short lived for the vast majority.

Next story loading loading..