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Has Advertising Killed Itself?

by Tom Asacker  |  
May 2, 2006

"Video killed the radio star." Maybe that's true, but I'm not really sure. I am pretty sure, however, that advertising killed itself—or, at the very least, took the wind out of its own sails.

Advertising used to work, and work well. What do I mean by "work?" I mean that once upon a time, when products and services of obvious differentiated quality and value were popping up like weeds in a field, consumers were predisposed to believe advertising claims, both overt and subtle. Since belief leads to action, sales of those advertised goods increased as well.

An Old Lesson From a Dutch Philosopher

Heinz's relish was, in the mind of the consumer, a perceivable improvement over generic relish. Sensory evidence—a full jar, no grit to chew, consistent texture and taste—proved it out. The same was true for many other modern wonders of the American age of mass production: the radio, telephone, automobile, television, instant cake mix, washing machine, dishwasher, air conditioner, etc. They were special products that, in fact, improved people's lives.

During those heady marketing times, consumers were predisposed—based on past experience (AKA memory)—to endorse and thereby become behaviorally susceptible to advertising's representational content. Times were indeed very good for advertising, as well they should have been. Then something happened.

Before I tell you what happened, let's go back 325 years. The great Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza postulated that to comprehend something was also to believe that something. For example, if you said "my eyes are brown," I would simultaneously understand and believe your statement. To disbelieve your statement would require a subsequent act of rejection, based on logic or, in this case, sensory evidence.

Recent research in social and cognitive psychology suggests that Spinoza was right: The acceptance of an idea is part of the automatic comprehension of that idea, and the rejection of an idea occurs subsequent to, and with more effort than, its acceptance. What does this have to do with advertising effectiveness? Everything.

During the heyday of mass marketing, consumers were predisposed to comprehend, accept, and act upon advertising because of the following reasons: Our memories of past representations supported its acceptance. Or, we simply wanted to believe. It felt good to believe that through marketplace activities we could become more successful, desirable, live longer, be happier, etc.

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Tom Asacker is a professional speaker, management adviser, and author of the new book, The Business of Belief: How the World's Best Marketers, Designers, Salespeople, Coaches, Fundraisers, Educators, Entrepreneurs and Other Leaders Get Us to Believe.

Twitter: @TomAsacker

LinkedIn: Tom Asacker

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