Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

On a recent rainy weekend, determined to catch up on my reading, I picked up two books, The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, by Al Ries and Laura Reis, and A Big Life in Advertising, by Mary Wells Lawrence. Settling in on the couch, I proceeded to read them at the same time, alternating 50 pages of the former with 75 of the latter.

It was a fascinating and somewhat disorienting experience, as my brain whiplashed from advertising’s glorious past to its ignoble present. One moment I was savoring the triumphs of creative advertising, the next I was reading that creative advertising is a self-serving scam. Mary’s tales of brands saved from extinction by the power of advertising were followed by the Reises’ litany of failed dot-coms on which hundreds of millions of marketing dollars were squandered. Lawrence writes about selling the dream; the Reises write about consumers who just aren’t buying commercial messages.

Alas for the ad industry, the Reis book captures the attitude that prevails in today’s marketing circles, where the trend is toward every kind of third-party endorsement—just as long as it doesn’t take place within a commercial pod. The Reises flog public relations as the one and only way to launch a brand, but there are more aggressive alternatives to advertising as well: not-so-casual plugs by celebrities on the talk-show circuit; the imprimatur of appearances in TV shows and movies; mentions in hip-hop lyrics; ringers nursing brand-name cocktails on the next bar stool; and soccer moms for hire, touting brands to neighbors for a fee. Word of mouth trumps a word from our sponsors every time.

Or it does if you believe what you read in the papers. Without a doubt, gambits like Lauren Bacall’s “spontaneous” endorsement of prescription drugs on the Today show get all the ink. The same consumers who might not be able to recall a current Coke commercial to save their lives know all about the Coca-Cola Red Room on American Idol. Meanwhile, trendy “alternative” and “stealth” marketing shops have replaced trendy dot-com and urban-marketing agencies in the hearts of holding-company executives.

So is advertising really dead? (By the way, The Fall of Advertising does not say it is, only that it should play a less dominant role in the branding process. But hey, no journalist is going to write about a book called The Changing Role of Advertising.) Surely everyone knows that the days of “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” are history; indeed, they were when Mary Wells Lawrence retired a dozen years ago. These days, no marketing executive worth his salt would pin his entire budget on advertising. Still, if one considers the two charges most often leveled at traditional advertising—its lack of accountability and its lack of credibility—one finds that, in both cases, the cure of “alternative marketing” may be worse than the disease.

Take accountability, the cri de coeur of many a brand manager. Yes, in the dawning age of TiVo, it is more difficult than ever to know if one’s ad is being seen by the audience for which one is paying so dearly. But how will Toyota, say, be able to “account” for the impact of its presence in ABC’s Push, Nevada (assuming, of course, that Push, Nevada does not get canceled)? How does one measure the effectiveness of a stealth ploy in which actors covertly tout brands by impersonating real people? One cannot, because such subterfuges are by their nature unmeasurable.

Even PR enthusiasts like the Reises admit that the Achilles heel of publicity is that its effectiveness cannot be measured. And while this does not mean such methods do not work, it does mean that one cannot prove they do. If it is accountability that clients want, alternative marketing is a step backward.

As for advertising’s credibility crisis, marketing strategies that rely on deception hardly improve matters. In the age of Enron and WorldCom, it is astounding that companies will commit to marketing practices that their PR departments cannot admit to. The practice of using ringers or product seeding is a little like the subliminal techniques the industry was accused of employing in the heyday of TV.

Except they’re worse, at least from the consumer’s point of view, because they happen in real life. Such practices can only make the skeptical consumer—the one who doesn’t believe advertising anymore—more skeptical. I don’t know about you, but the next time I’m at a bar and some stranger touts an adult beverage, I’m going to ask for his SAG card.