Ad Report Card: Ads for Ads

Occasionally people ask me: Do ads even work? My answer is usually something along lines of: sort of, sometimes, although no one knows for sure, and a lot of people think not, but the bottom line is that everyone’s too scared to find out what would happen if they stopped advertising altogether. That’s not a satisfying response, of course. But somebody else has a different response: Yes! Ads work! That point of view comes from the not exactly unbiased American Advertising Federation, which lately has been running a series of ads touting the benefits of advertising itself. You can see them here.

The Coke-ish Spot: “A secret formula revealed,” reads the white type against a black background, as a cheesily bombastic jingle cranks up in the background. Cut to a bottle rotating toward the camera, its label a very familiar shade of red with equally familiar white, scripty letters flowing across it. But the label doesn’t say “Coca Cola.” It says “Adver-Tising.” The lyrics: “It’s the real thing. That’s the way it should be.” (Here another vocal bursts in with “Adverti-i-i-sing.”) “What the world wants to see. Whoa-oh-oh, yeah. It’s the real thing.” As the music fades, white type reappears across the black background: “Advertising. The way great brands get to be great brands.”

The Intel-ish Spot: It starts with a black screen, onto which white type appears against the sound of a clacking keyboard. “What makes one computer more powerful than another?” There is a pause. Then onto the screen bursts what at first glance looks like the well-known “Intel Inside” logo, with its big, blue circular swish, and the memorable sound of the four-note Intel mini-jingle. But inside the circle is the word “advertising” (hyphenated so that, broken in two, it more closely resembles the Intel slogan). This lingers a second, then disappears. And the same closing message as the Coke ad clicks across the screen.

You buying? According to the AAF, this campaign is “unprecedented.” In the words of the group’s president, it “underscores the fact that brand recognition is possible only through sustained advertising—and it’s no different when that brand is advertising itself.” (A print-only version of the campaign has been kicking around since October 2000.) But maybe the most telling bit of the AAF’s press release notes that the series essentially “cautions Corporate America not to neglect their brand development. In this time of economic challenge, the campaign is right on target in stressing that advertising builds brand equity and profits.” This assertion smacks of desperation: We’re in the middle of an ad slump that, apparently, is so bad that we must now sit through ads for ads.

The spots, meanwhile, make their case in a way that is less than thoroughly convincing. Yeah, those logos are famous because we’ve seen them in a million ads. So what? Isn’t it possible that, say, Intel built a well-known brand on the strength of, oh, I don’t know, innovative technology? (Or perhaps Intel is essentially conceding here, by letting the AAF have its way with the company logo, that its success is a simple triumph of marketing.) And the music in that “Coke” spot—”It’s what the world wants to see”? This is so ridiculous and absurd that it sounds like something a bunch of culture-jammer types would put together as a parody. But who knows—there’s actually something pleasing about the idea of some “corporate decision maker” who had lately grown skeptical about the payoff of advertising changing his or her mind after seeing one of these ads. Perhaps this person would say, dronelike, “Yes. Advertising works after all. It is an effective way to sway the malleable hoi polloi. Must. Buy. More Ads.”

Perhaps just as amusing (or perhaps not) is the fact that the AAF is reportedly asking networks to run these spots for free. In late January the New York Times said that magazines and newspapers have “so far donated $4 million worth of space to run the ads.” (Thanks to my colleague William Saletan for pointing that item out to me; he also raises an eyebrow at the $4 million figure—at a time when ad pages are down, “who exactly was clamoring to pay that?”) This might seem a little strange, since the greater good of advertising is not exactly a public service or a charitable cause. But of course publications or networks or TV stations, which derive revenue from advertising, have a self-interested reason for “donating” time to these pitches for pitches: Nobody has a greater motivation for believing in the power of advertising than they do.