Alex Murrell wrote a blog post titled The Errors of Efficiency (October 4, 2021).

  • Error #1. Mass media is wasteful because it is untargeted
  • Error #2. Mass media is wasteful because it is ignored 
  • Error #3. Mass media is wasteful because it is expensive  

Murrell says the advertising industry is intoxicated by efficiency, undermining effectiveness.

« In short, we prioritise cheap channels to improve our ROI. We invest in touchpoints which can target those most likely to convert. And we avoid advertising on media that commands low levels of attention. »

Error #1: Mass media is wasteful because it is untargeted

« As the great philosopher of advertising, Jeremy Bullmore, once put it: “If a luxury car only ever advertised to people in the market for a luxury car in the next 6 months then soon, nobody would be in the market for that car, as you mainly buy one to be the envy of the people who can’t afford it.” »

« When you broadcast your brand, everybody knows that everybody else knows what you stand for. »

« When you go beyond an audience and establish your brand within a culture, you become part of the public consciousness. You become common knowledge. Kevin Simler refers to this effect as “Cultural Imprinting” …  Simler goes on to explain how it is the inefficient communications channels, the channels which Anderson derides as the “old broadcast model”, which seem most effective at achieving cultural imprinting. These channels reach a large audience, and more importantly they reach a large audience who all know that a large audience has been reached.  »

« “Expect to find imprinting ads on billboards, bus stops, subways, stadiums, and any other public location, and also in popular magazines and TV shows — in other words, in broadcast media. But we would not expect to find cultural imprinting ads on flyers, door tags, or direct mail. Similarly, internet search ads and banner ads are inimical to cultural imprinting because the internet is so fragmented… When I see a Google search ad, I have no idea whether the rest of my peers have seen that ad or not.” »

Error #2: Mass media is wasteful because it is ignored 

« In 1964, Leon Festinger partnered with his colleague Nathan Maccoby to understand how people process messages during periods of distraction. A summary of the experiment appears in the book, The Choice Factory: “Festinger and Nathan Maccoby, academics at Stanford University, recruited members of college fraternities… The recording was played in two different scenarios: students either heard it on its own or they watched a silent film at the same time. After the students had heard the recording, the Stanford psychologists questioned them as to how far their views had shifted. Those who had heard the argument at the same time as the silent film were more likely to have changed their opinion.” »

« The silent film provided a distraction which reduced the level of attention that was applied to the audio argument. But rather than decrease the argument’s potency, it increased its power. »

« The psychologists hypothesised that participants in the undistracted, high-attention group were able to generate counter-arguments that maintained their existing opinions and avoided the discomfort of experiencing cognitive dissonance. In the low-attention group, on the other hand, the participant’s cognitive defences were not invoked and their ability to counter-argue hampered. »

« Paul Feldwick [author of The Anatomy of Humbug] summarises the argument beautifully: “When we don’t notice we are being influenced, we cannot argue back.” »

« The psychologist Daniel Gilbert found that counter-argument was an operation of System 2 – our slow, effortful, conscious mode of mental processing. On the contrary, he believed that System 1 – our fast, automatic, intuitive mode – is much more accepting of information. »

« The Nobel Prize winning Daniel Kahneman provides an overview of Gilbert’s experiment in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow…  “When System 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything. System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving… There is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.” »

« Dr. Robert Heath… To greatly simplify, Heath suggests that ads that receive active attention, are consciously processed, deeply analysed, counter-argued and deprioritised to short-term memory. On the contrary, ads that receive passive attention, are sub-consciously processed, shallowly analysed and stored in our long-term memory. »

« Heath summarises his case in his book, Seducing the Subconscious:  “My theory is that the most successful advertising campaigns in the world are not those we love or those we hate, or those with messages that are new or interesting. They are those (…) that are able to effortlessly slip things under our radar and influence our behaviour without us ever really knowing that they have done so. And the way in which these apparently inoffensive ad campaigns work is by “seducing” our subconscious.” »

« Together the work of Scott, Festinger, Maccoby and Heath indicates that brand building advertising doesn’t work by communicating persuasive messages to an attentive audience. Instead, it works by consistently exposing an inattentive audience to images, music and emotional triggers that lodge themselves in a consumer’s subconscious. »

Error #3: Mass media is wasteful because it is expensive  

« Tom Goodwin explains how banks use inefficient, expensive architecture to build trust: “because the architecture of solidity and trust was a vital brand asset to convey.” »

« In 2004 the marketing icon Tim Ambler published a landmark paper in The Journal of Advertising Research that drew a direct connection between the way that animals and brands signal their strength. Both, he argued, communicated through conspicuous waste: “Evidently, just as a female peacocks are drawn to meet with the largest, most spectacular tail feathers because the display signals superior biological fitness, consumers are attracted to brands that invest in lavish displays like Super Bowl commercials because such extravagance signals a high-quality, successful brand.”  Ambler hypothesised that just as animals signalled their strength through unnecessary adornment, brands signalled their strength through unnecessary spend. »

« I’ll close this chapter by re-referencing Alchemy, in which Rory Sutherland sums up the principle of “costly signalling” succinctly:  “The potency and meaningfulness of communication is in direct proportion to the costliness of its creation (…). This may be inefficient – but it’s what makes it work.” »


« As Tim Ambler famously put it: “The waste in advertising is the part that works.” »

See also Slack… The Myth of Total Efficiency

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