Marketing's No. 1 lie: 'I don’t pay attention to ads'

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There have been numerous studies over the years that have to come to the same conclusion: People tend to see themselves more favorably than is, well, possible.

Eighty percent to 90 percent of us report that we are “above-average drivers.” Eighty-seven percent of a group of Master of Business Administration candidates at Stanford rated themselves above average for their class.

And 25 percent of high school students rated themselves in the top 1 percent of “ability to get along well with others.”

Of course, at least some of the people in the study were right and were better drivers, students or friends than average. But many were fooling themselves.

Which brings us to the biggest lie in marketing: “I don't pay attention to advertising.”

Sure you don't.

Adobe published a study last June in which 92 percent of the people it surveyed reported they don't pay attention to online ads. Results were actually a little better for traditional advertising, such as TV at 78 percent not paying attention and newspapers and magazines at 74 percent.

The other half of this myth of stated disdain for visual, audio and emotional product appeals is the often-heard statement, “Advertising is a waste of money.”

Of course, the people who say this:

(A) Are not advertisers themselves, and

(B) somehow believe that all their perceptions, preferences and purchase behavior is based on rational thought processes and their superior intellect and driving skills.

Here's a little trick you can play on the next person you meet who claims he doesn't pay attention to advertising. Ask the question in a different way that plays to his intellect.

Take a product category and ask, “How many (beer, auto, cosmetics, cereal, clothing, appliance, insurance, toothpaste, etc.) brands can you name?”

The average person, or should we say the above-average person that we tend to see in ourselves, typically can name hundreds of brands from memory, just from a simple directional suggestion or two.

Next, tell him how impressed you are with his recall and follow up with questions such as these:

• Who are Mayhem, Flo and the Most Interesting Man in the World?

• What brands use the slogans “Just do it,” “Have it your way,” “Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more on your car insurance?”

Your test subject may not get them all, but he will be hard-pressed to pretend that he does not know any of them. Especially if he wants to look smart.

So it's relatively easy to prove that our minds retain a great deal of what we supposedly don't pay attention to, at least according to our conscious statements.

And, a key issue these studies do not take into account when they ask about advertising is that, indeed, most of the advertising a person sees in a day is not terribly relevant to him at that point in time. But sometimes it is.

Let's take auto-dealer advertising as an example — often the most reviled, intrusive, please-stop-yelling-at-me messages ever to be created. Probably 97.5 percent of the car-driving public tunes them out – and turns down the volume – for years.

But one day, you start thinking about buying a new car and gradually you start paying more attention. What you thought of as white noise is now more relevant, isn't it?

Admit it. In the back of your mind, you start thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a good lease rate.”

Or, “I'd like to get a look at that new SUV.”

This is why advertising works. This is why advertisers invest billions of dollars a year in advertising. And it's why the advertisers who spend the most are more often than not among the leaders in their categories.

They know that much of it falls on deaf ears, but when your car insurance is due, or the fridge is empty, all of sudden you realize that some of those messages have stuck with you.

This is not to say that all advertising and branding are great. Big advertisers also spend a lot of money making sure their message will be effective when they invest in their media buys.

And for many advertisers, a major part of their investment is intended to maintain the loyalty of the customers they already have. After all, there's no need to call Geico if you already have its insurance and you're convinced it has the best rates.

The fact is, good advertising for good brands generally works. Anyone who tells you differently is probably fooling themselves … and likely is an average driver, at best.

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