Is advertising a dead language?

Relationships A new book by Al and Laura Reis maintains that ads are not the most effective communication tools for building brands; public relations does a much better job at getting the message to consumers.

National Post, July 29, 2002   

Al and Laura Ries have written a eulogy for advertising, or, at least, recorded its decline to second-class status.


The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $37.95) argues advertising can’t build brands anymore. It can only maintain and reinforce what consumers already know. And they don’t get that information from advertising. Public relations, they say, builds brands.


“Botox did US$300-million in sales last year with no advertising,” Mr. Ries offers as an example. “This year they launched a US$50-million advertising campaign. I think that’s perfect. The brand got built by PR, and now’s the time to switch to advertising. Same thing happened with Viagra, Sony Playstation; The Body Shop has never advertised.”


Neither has doughnut chain Krispy Kreme, which relies solely on public relations, eschewing traditional advertising almost entirely.


The Fall of Advertising details other examples to back up Mr. Ries’s thesis, which has been advanced before — notably in his book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (1998).


Al Ries has made an impression on the advertising business before, too, initially with 1980’s Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.


“It’s not a new idea, but it’s a newly appreciated idea,” says Nancy Evans, vice-president at Environics Communications.


“PR has been undervalued. We have a very cluttered marketplace. The average consumer has built up a pretty good filtering system. It’s harder to get the message across through straight advertising. But public relations had been a stealth technique. I don’t think people have appreciated how well it can work for branding.”


Ms. Evans says advertising and PR have traditionally been separate disciplines running along similar, parallel tracks.


Mr. Ries’s ideas offer an opportunity to integrate them and make both more effective.


Mr. Ries maintains increasing ad clutter has inured consumers to advertising messages and sapped their effectiveness. But the proliferation of media outlets and content has had the opposite result; the messages consumers get from newspapers, Web sites and television are more memorable and stronger, maybe because the PR work behind them ensures the same message gets repeated in contexts consumers trust more than advertising.


“Even if you accept our premise, it’s the maintenance with advertising that’s likely to be our biggest long-term point of contention,” he says.


“The advertising establishment is hung up on creativity — the new and different — whereas maintenance reaffirms what’s already in the mind. People who want to be creative should get into public relations.”


Of course, you’d expect PR people to agree with a book that says they’re undervalued. And dissent comes from exactly where you’d expect it as well — the business Mr. Ries declares is fading.


“He’s wrong,” says Tony Alitilia, president and chief operating officer of Palmer Jarvis DDB. “Ries is one of the pre-eminent authorities on brand positioning, so it sort of surprises me that he writes this, because I do think it’s a lot of bunk. To claim that advertising is dying in the creation of brands is almost ludicrous. It may have a less-dominant role in the creation of brands, but look at Nike. I was the head of the Reebok account in the United States for three years, and competed against them. And if it wasn’t for [Nike’s advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy of Portland, Oregon], that brand would not be as big as it is. It’s bunk.”


Mr. Altilia cites Marlboro, Budweiser and other brands that owe their status to advertising.


But he also concedes that advertising takes a smaller chunk of marketing budgets than it used to, and that public relations is an increasingly important component of most marketing plans.


There’s another, wider view of this debate.


“Advertising and PR are both tools, and there are many different tools that you use to build a brand,” says Shannon Potts, director, communications at global brand consultancy Watt.


“Part of the brand strategy process is establishing what messages you need to communicate before you launch a brand. Advertising comes in much later in the process. All the values and key messages should be established before an advertising or a PR company is engaged.”


She says she agrees with Mr. Ries, basically, and that as marketing bosses examine squeezed budgets looking for greater effectiveness at lower cost, PR probably looks like a better bet than traditional advertising.


“People are trying to figure out how to get the most bang for their buck. Advertising is a very expensive endeavor; PR is more economical.”


She also points out that often the brand itself will determine how it’s introduced to consumers. Some rely solely on advertising, others use PR almost exclusively.


Al Ries says his book’s launching will prove its thesis.


“We’ve always left it up to the publisher to promote the book. This time, we took our own advice and did it differently. We started in January with a mention in a newsletter. Then narrow magazines, then wider magazines.


“The PR business is the opposite from the advertising business. Advertising works with a big launch, then trickles down. With PR, you start small and build credibility, then proceed with a slow, slow rollout.”