Thursday, April 19, 2007

What is Advertising? (Revisited)

“Keeping Everlastingly at it Brings Success” was the motto of N.W. Ayer & Sons, one of the earliest advertising agencies, in the late 1800s. When Albert Lasker asked his contemporaries during that time, “What is Advertising?,” he was told it was “keeping your name before the public.” Lasker, who came from a background as a journalist, had himself noted the success of one of the agencies of his day which wrote advertising as if it were news about a product, and so he thought advertising must be news.

But in 1904, John Kennedy provided Lasker with a new definition of advertising. He defined advertising as “salesmanship in print.” Kennedy’s definition ignited a change in the advertising industry and stands out as perhaps the most succinct definition of advertising ever since. Yet so many things have changed. Kennedy, after all, pre-dated radio, TV, the internet, even the concept of a “brand” and the brand management organization structure. It’s more than 100 years since Kennedy defined advertising as salesmanship in print. Do we need a new definition of advertising?

“Keeping your name before the public” has long been abandoned as any kind of definition of advertising – you would never hear a marketer today say that his goal was to keep his brand’s name before the public. Or would you? As DVRs threaten the advertising model on TV, advertisers respond by increasing product placements. What are product placements if not simply keeping your name before the public? And what topics fill the pages of advertising trade magazines and are on the lips of marketers everywhere? Buzzmarketing, word-of-mouth, viral campaigns…. Is that salesmanship, or is it keeping your name before the public?

So, how do we define advertising? The 4As, formed in 1917, adopted an outline of agency service in 1918 that hasn’t changed much over the years. In it, they describe agency service as consisting of “interpreting to the public, or to that part of it which it is desired to reach, the advantages of a product or service.”

The ever-useful Wikipedia defines advertising as paid communication through a non-personal medium in which the sponsor is identified and the message is controlled. Variations, they note, include publicity, public relations, product placement, sponsorship, underwriting, and sales promotion. Every major medium is used to deliver these messages: television, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, the internet, and billboards. Advertisements can also be seen on the seats of grocery carts, on the walls of an airport walkway, and on the sides of buses, or heard in telephone hold messages or in-store PA systems – nearly anywhere a visual or audible communication can be placed.

Good old Merriam-Webster provides the following definition:
1 : to make something known to : NOTIFY
2 a : to make publicly and generally known b : to announce publicly especially by a printed notice or a broadcast c : to call public attention to especially by emphasizing desirable qualities so as to arouse a desire to buy or patronize : PROMOTE

David Ogilvy comes at it from the Kennedy school of thought. Ogilvy said that “advertising is no more and no less than an efficient way to sell.” Whereas the hot shop du jour, Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, defines advertising as “anything that makes our clients famous.”

During Media Week last October, Joe Plummer of the Advertising Research Foundation discussed the ARF’s working definition of Engagement as “turning on a consumer to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding content”. But he also talked about this definition as not just about Engagement, but as a whole new construct of marketing communications. Is “turning on a consumer to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding content” a new definition of advertising?

It’s been over 165 years since the first advertising agency was founded. We may not have all the answers – we will probably never have all the answers as advertising continues to evolve with the times -- but we’ve certainly learned a few things along the way. Let’s take another look at how we might define advertising in the 21st century.

(to be continued)