Politics and advertising.

September 1, 2003

September 2003

What’s the difference between 49 percent and 51 percent?

For most people the difference is 2 percent. But if you’re a politician, the difference between 49 percent and 51 percent is the difference between losing and winning.

We are strong advocates of launching brands with PR and then using advertising only after the brand has achieved a measure of credibility. But there are situations where advertising should be brought into the game much sooner. A political campaign, for example.

Pepsi-Cola, Burger King, MasterCard and Energizer are strong, successful No. 2 brands, but if they were politicians, all these brands would be out on the rubber-chicken circuit with Al Gore. In politics, there are no successful No. 2 brands. There are only winners and losers.

That’s why in a political campaign the crucial market is the last few percent. To win, you need to capture those few last voters in order to push your campaign over the 50 percent bar. (Think Florida.)

In a new product launch, PR is usually much more effective and efficient than advertising. The same is true when you launch a candidate for political office. Your PR activities, including newspaper and magazine stories, TV and radio interviews, will be much more effective than any advertising you might run. (Think Howard Dean.)

Suppose your PR activities generate 49 percent of the vote for your political candidate. You lose. Suppose you add millions of dollars of ineffective and inefficient television and print advertising to your campaign and pick up 2 percent more of the votes. You win.

Politicians know the mathematics of a political campaign and regularly amass as many advertising dollars as they can muster. But this same concept has other applications, most notably in motion picture advertising.

In movie marketing, you seldom get a second chance to make a first impression. If you don’t win the first week, your chances of becoming a blockbuster are almost nil. That’s why motion picture producers pour many millions of dollars into marketing their movies.

Each dollar, especially each advertising dollar, may be an inefficient way to move a body into a theater seat. But if those inefficient advertising dollars drive enough additional movie goers to put your film into the No. 1 position, they might be well spent.

That’s why movie producers will spend advertising dollars even before a film opens. They want to maximize their chances of winning that crucial first week. Then they hope word-of-mouth will take over and keep the film in circulation long enough to put it into the blockbuster category.

Nothing succeeds like success. People want to see what other people are seeing. (One reason is that it gives them something to talk about.) A motion picture that makes it to the top in its first week has an excellent chance to go on to become an extremely profitable film. Lose the first week and the game becomes more difficult.

There are exceptions, of course. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” became a blockbuster without winning the first week, thanks, in part, to a powerful publicity campaign. But these exceptions are few and far between.

Advertising is a tool like PR, merchandising and promotions are tools. Even the best tools, however, are not suitable for every job. You wouldn’t use a hammer when the job called for a wrench. Or a saw when the job called for a pliers.

So, too, with advertising which works best when the brand has already achieved some credibility in the mind. Without credibility, however, advertising is at a severe disadvantage. Why even read an ad about a brand that doesn’t own a position in your mind? “How can the brand be any good if I’ve never heard of it?”

Would you hire an advertising agency you have never heard of? So how effective can an advertisement be for an ad agency you have never heard of? Doesn’t the agency need to generate some favorable publicity first before it can run advertisements that will attract the attention of prospective clients? This, of course, is purely speculative because ad agencies for the most part don’t do any advertising. Do as I say, not as I do.

Since the publication of “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR,” a book written with my daughter and partner Laura, we have been criticized by the media, denounced by ad agency honchos and even sued in Costa Rica. Yet we have always been a strong supporter of the advertising tool when used at the right time and for the right purpose. And that purpose, in our opinion, is the maintenance of brands.

As a matter of fact, many companies don’t spend enough money advertising their established brands. Once their brands have established a strong position in the prospect’s mind, many companies spend their advertising dollars on line extensions, flavor enhancements and new markets, when they should be spending their advertising dollars hammering in the brand’s core concept.

Advertising is a hammer and works best when PR has set the nail first.