Why most advertising fails

When you’ve been in advertising as long as I have, you learn that there is really only one reason why most advertising fails, and it’s called fear. How fear manifests with regard to advertising presents in an almost endless list of methods, some of them justified, most not.

Advertising limited by fear bores people, possibly the most dangerous result in all marketing.

There are very few things a company could say in an advertisement that would offend those loyal to the brand so greatly that they will go away. Boring them, on the other hand, can result in customers jumping ship to someone more exciting. Being boring always yields the same result: bad advertising. Boring ads usually result from fear of risk.

Some companies kill their own advertising efforts by asphyxiating creative or completely forgoing real strategy. Others buy media “deals” which waste budgets on mediums that will never pan out. Some companies insist on writing their own headlines and text, resulting in ads that they can connect with but no one else can. Still others go for “wow factor,” forgoing (or forgetting) to make real, meaningful connections. It’s easier to undermine advertising efforts with fear-rooted action than to hold high ambitions for success.

When I hear a client say, ‘advertising doesn’t work,’ what they really mean is that their past advertising hasn’t worked. They rarely can show measured results, which means they often base advertising effectiveness on feeling rather than any sort of hard data. Sometimes they have data, but don’t understand what it means. In order for data to have any intrinsic value, the advertising effort must have meaningful, stated goals prior to the creation of the campaign. Without goals, success is virtually impossible. Not determining or stating goals up front is a fearful approach.

Among initial advertising goals, I’ve often heard little more than, “more sales.”

“More” is a hard goal to reach because it could mean literally anything, and does little to inspire people in marketing, creative or sales.

Setting goals is risky because someone has to raise their hand, stick their neck out, and take responsibility. If the company dynamic says sticking your neck out ends in it being chopped off should the effort fail, fear rules and no does what it takes to realize effective advertising efforts.

I suggest a different approach.

How about the people who stick their necks out get rewarded regardless of success? This may inspire a more constructive dialog, such as, ‘What a great failure that was! What did we learn? What’s next?’

Show me any other part of life where every single effort results in success. I think you will find that no arena offers guaranteed known success.

Activities as simple as walking present risk. You could trip and fall or step in a hole, but you don’t stop walking. You need to get where you are going, and walking forward is the most sure way to get there.

Similarly, an advertising effort might fail, but you keep taking risks and keep advertising because it’s the most sure way to succeed.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

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