What would John Wanamaker say about advertising today?

“I know that half my advertising works, I just don't know which half”.  The quote is attributed to John Wanamaker, a department store owner in the US in the early 20th century.  Today, the question might be simpler, ‘Does advertising work?’

In the traditional sense of putting an advert in a newspaper or magazine, the answer must be less and less.  Five years ago, CarringtonCrisp launched the GenerationWeb study to look at how students used websites when deciding what and where to study.  The project was launched as other data showed a continuing decline in the use of traditional media.

However, five years on traditional media still has a role to play in certain circumstances.  For brand campaigns aimed at a variety of audiences, a national newspaper can be a very powerful tool, not just for the advert itself, but often in the spin off discussion on social media sites!  In certain countries such as Australia where there is a strong city-based or regional market, certain regional newspapers can still be helpful in promoting courses and institutions.  Similarly, in countries where broadband speeds might be slow, print media may still be valuable.  And with certain audiences a newspaper can also be helpful; while prospective undergraduates may read newspapers less and less, their parents are still likely to be readers.

Of course, the impact of an advert irrespective of the media used will depend on the quality of the creative work.  Too many adverts from business schools and universities are nothing more than smiling students.  In the 1980s there was a joke in the US that every university brochure had to have a certain photo on its cover or inside cover called ‘three under a tree’ – it’s a sunny day, and there are three smiling students sitting on a grassy mound under a tree.  Much advertising and many websites today have gone down the same route, making little of the visual nature of the web and failing to differentiate their institution from many others.

The problem of poor creative work is set out clearly in a recent blog by Conrad Chua in the Judge MBA Admissions Blog where three under a tree have been replaced by skydivers and mountaineers.  Sometimes great creativity doesn’t need great photography.  One of the best adverts from a business school last year appeared in the Financial Times from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and used type, space and a great line to create impact.

Of course, advertising today is not just about print media.  Much advertising takes place online with services such as facebook, putting advertisers in control over targeting, management of spend and with real time data showing effectiveness of the advert.  With something like facebook, the message is not just the advertising, but more importantly the message is in the interaction and the commentary from the consumer.

Today John Wanamker might have asked ‘I know I need to do social media, but how does it work?’, but that’s for another blog.


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