Is Madison Avenue Advertising a Total Fraud?

December 5th, 2005 by Bob Bly

There are certain industries with inherent flaws that make them, at best, marginally effective.

Traditional book publishing, with too much product (almost 200,000 new books published each year) and returns from bookstores to publishers in the 30% to 50% range, is one of them.

I believe that the ad agency business as practiced today also has a built-in flaw that dooms the majority of it to mediocrity at best, and an outright drain on corporate productivity at worst.

Reason: despite protests to the contrary, Madison Avenue, as evidenced by national ad campaigns, has as its primary objective creativity, not sales.

Example: the Six Flags TV ad campaign with the crazy dancing old guy (rumored to be a young woman in makeup) was the talk of the ad agency world ? widely acclaimed for its humor, energy, and cleverness.

But, according to Parade magazine (8/21/05), after spending a stomach-churning $72 million on the campaign, Six Flags reported the results: no increase in attendance ? and not a drop of added revenue.

That?s a return on investment (ROI) of less than zero, putting Six Flags $72 million in the hole on this marketing boondogle.

Or do you have a different view? Maybe you think the dancing guy was worth it because it ?gained attention? or contributed to ?branding.?

Or maybe you think Six Flags is the exception, not the rule ? and Madison Avenue really, truly does care about making the cash register ring, not just winning Clio awards.

What say you?

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 5th, 2005 at 2:55 pm and is filed under Advertising. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

48 responses about “Is Madison Avenue Advertising a Total Fraud?”

  1. Morgan Cloward said:

    Zero return on a $72 million investiment? Are you kidding me? Somebody better fire that agency (if they haven’t already).

  2. Dave J. said:

    Should such a campaign be expected to boost attendence, or just support and maintain the existing business/brand?

    The campaign needs to be aligned with the goals. But, maybe that’s your point, Bob.

  3. fred said:

    actually six flags spent less on media each year since they began the mr. six campaign, and in the first year the campaign slowed a four year slide in attendance, and this year it yielded a dramatic upturn in season pass sales and attendance.

  4. Mark Amtower said:

    Amtower adage: All ad agencies suck, some just suck less. Individual
    markets (banking, burgers, insurance, retail) all have nuances that take
    time to understand. Those sent to “research” are the intern-level
    newbies – low men/women on the totem pole. As many are fresh out of college – or
    worse, grad school – they necessarily think they know more than you (the
    client) and are apt to apply the square peg to the round hole regardless,
    thus spending more money with less result.

    In my market (business to government) this is especially true of agencies
    not based in DC. SF and NYC agencies, which own the business of major
    mfgrs, are like Midas when it comes to guarding the $$$ involving
    advertising. “Government-izing” the ads often “reduces the effectiveness
    of the message” or “hurts the brand.” So instead of government-izing an ad,
    they offer something that may not be legal in the government market,
    endangering the vendor (client). It has happened more than once.
    >

  5. AIM said:

    It looks like ad agencies are good at marketing themselves, but not much else.

  6. Bob Bly said:

    Fred: I do not accept your data, as mine came from a major media source. You need to cite your source.

    Dave: If you owned Six Flags company, would you sink $72 million in advertising to “support and maintain a brand” if it did not sell a single ticket? Of what use is brand advertising that does not increase sales?

  7. RichW said:

    The bigger question may be whether any campaign would’ve mattered. Laura Ries posted on Mr. Six awhile back and it seemed many of the comments had to do with the quality of the experience and conditions of the Six Flags parks themselves, not whether Mr. Six was an ad icon (many liked the campaign, as did I). Consumer reviews seem to bear this out.

    I suppose if I’m Six Flags, I’m spending the $72 million (and more) on park upgrades and improving the experience, then marketing like crazy to my local and regional audience to develop some WOM. Only then can I market nationally as a destination.

    It wasn’t Mr. Six’s fault. Probably not the agency’s either (although one has to ask whether $72 million was really necessary). Rather, the fault appears to lie firmly at the feet of Six Flags management.

  8. Susan Getgood said:

    I agree that the ad agency business has traditionally been far more motivated by creativity than actual results, but we can’t lay all the blame at the agency doors (whether in-house or outside agency). Marketers need to stick to their guns and demand advertising that sells, not just looks good or wins awards. In my opinion, brand advertising is by and large a waste of money. ANY well-done ad is going to build brand awareness for you, so why waste the opportunity to actually sell something!

    Great minds must think alike :-) as I posted about Advertising yesterday as well.

  9. Danny said:

    My agency must not have been paying attention when the “Dancing guy” was the “talk of the agency world.”

    I’ve gotta start hanging out at the water cooler more.

  10. Sean Bailey said:

    Bob,

    While I agree with your general take on ad agencies, I recently read Phil Dusenberry’s “Then We Set His Hair on Fire,” which is a very substantial read regarding his many years at Madison Ave agencies. The is not as much a memoir as a “how to” regarding the business of developing “insights” (as opposed to just good ideas) that drive entire marketing campaigns that “move the meter” as he says. His comments and experience always seemed very focused on ROI, which I was quite surprised to read. Anyway, I think someone in the NYTimes last weekend wrote that th book was one of the best “missed” books of the year. I do recommend it for folks in the marketing business.

  11. Dave J. said:

    Bob–How much money does Budweiser spend on advertising? They do it to reinforce the brand…it is part of the product they sell.

    Of course, the story is now that Marlboro has become a cash-cow now that PM has limited choices to advertise. The Marlboro man is dead…and apparently as effective as Mr. Six.

  12. Bob Bly said:

    Dave J: But what is the Bud ROI? If they spent $100 million in advertising and increased beer sales $200 million, their ROI is 2 to 1. If Six Flags spent $72 million to generate zero sales, their ROI is zero.

  13. James C. said:

    Bob,

    I could not agree. No, what’s the saying? I could not agree more. So many times I watch or see an ad I absolutely love but can’t recall what the product was. How’s that supposed to inspire me to dig out my wallet?

  14. Pamela Kock said:

    Um…I just thought the dancing old guy was creepy. What was the call to action? Come hang out with crazy elderly weirdos? Sounds like fun to me! Makes you wonder who attended the focus group.

  15. Darren said:

    I have to agree with Pamela. Mr. Six just creeped me out. But that’s subjective. Apparently, Pamela, we’re in the minority. Another campaign that astounded me was the one dreamed up by Crispin Porter + Bogusky for Burger King. They’re the masterminds behind the website http://www.subservientchicken.com, which got a lot of attention and buzz. And while I admit to being amused by it for a few minutes of my life, and can appreciate the novelty of the concept, it didn’t make me buy a chicken sandwich. I will even confess that I forwarded the site to a few acquaintances. They didn’t buy a chicken sandwich either. I asked. In fact, they didn’t even realize they were SUPPOSED to buy a chicken sandwich after seeing it. IN FACT, didn’t even realize the site was associated with Burger King. And now I believe it’s the same agency that’s doing the ads with “The King,” (i.e., “have breakfast with The King). You know the one I’m talking about — with the guy dressed as a king with the oversized head. I don’t get those either. CP+B is winning awards and getting accolades. What am I missing? I’m curious to know if anyone is familiar with this campaign and whether it has produced any measurable results for Burger King?

    Oh, and yeah, I agree that the whole “branding” phenomenon has gotten way out of control. It’s become a buzzword that makes people feel smart. Cash is king.

  16. Rick said:

    The Six Flags guy was creepy. Using traditional advertising, though, is probably a necessity, as they need masses of people to visit their parks. What they need to communicate is why their park is a superior experience to any other competing activity. Not sure the old bald guy in the tuxedo achieved that goal. Did this campaign really garner positive industry reviews? I’d be shocked.

  17. Doug D'Anna said:

    Bob, I wouldn’t go so far to say that general advertising is a fraud. I would say that general advertising just can’t deliver definitive, measurable results. To be sure, there are those who say through surveys and increased sales they can say that it works. But the fact remains that general advertising can’t tell you to the penny if the campaign made any money. It’s all guesswork. Direct response, on the other hand, gives your measurable results. Unfortunately—and in my opinion—most advertisers are swayed by the “coolness” and/or the image their ad may portray. The offer, tragically, is relegated to the back burner if it is included at all. As we all know, an advertisement without an offer is destined to fail. It boggles me that an intelligent advertiser would spend millions of dollars a year promoting their brand and never consider any kind of call to action. That said, it’s not a fraud. It’s simply not as measurably effective as direct response.

  18. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller-- said:
    Is Advertising Dishonest?
    Bob Bly took out after Madison Ave. on his blog. Are direct marketers and online marketers more ethical? Or just more effective?

  19. Dean Jones said:

    I have to agree with Doug. I believe one of the biggest mistakes made in advertising today is that almost all lack a *good* call to action / suggested next step (Bob, as a copywriter I hope you agree with the logic behind this).

    Many of the ads do a great job of getting the attention of people, but then drop the ball.
    (There are “direct sales” ads which do “sell” – but these are few and far between. IMHO, the best people at direct sales today are the top infomercial companies.)

    Ads by themselves are not specific sales vehicles – if that was the case we could fire all salespeople and save tons of money! The secret to their success is how they “fit / work” with the rest of the marketing actions.

    P.S. – I would like to know the logic used in the creative pitch of the Six Flags example – “Picture this, an old bald guy who can dance like a young hip guy will trip around in an old bus and this is going to make the park’s reservation phones ring off the hook!”

    B.S. must still baffle brains.

  20. Karen Callahan said:

    Bob,

    I have to tell you as the mother of kids that are prime target audience for Six flags, the TV ad did get their attention.

    However, while it was cute, it did not overcome the last negative experience our family had as visitors to the park.

    They would be better off spending their $72 million on cleaning up their parks and implementing programs based upon customer feedback.

    I would never go there again after my last experience unless they implemented some significant changes.

    How about that for a little feedback…?

    KC

  21. Susanna K. Hutcheson said:

    I totally agree with Bly on this one. I have long felt that the majority of advertising, especially television, is written to win prizes, not sales. I remember many of the spots and think they are cute. But ask me the product ten minutes after the spot has aired and I can’t remember it.

    The majority of copywriters, like writers in general, write to show off. They write to be cute and clever. They don’t sell with the purpose of selling products and services. They’re not salespeople but mere writers.

  22. Rob Swanson said:

    My bank did some absolutely incredible commercials a couple years ago. Slick, funny, beautiful. I thought we had finally found a good ad company.

    Last year we did commercials with a dancing Benjamin Franklin in a satin suit. It was embarrassing, pitiful, and just plain sad.

    The Dancing Ben commercials generated massive sales; the good branding commercials didn’t.

    Admittedly, the branding commercials were promoting the bank, and Dancing Ben promoted a sales promotion, but still….

  23. Soren said:

    It’s hard to say (from the figures you print here) whether the campaign was successful or not.

    Had Six Flags attendance been dropping prior to the campaign?
    had spend been going down?

    Did the campaign contribute by stemming the losses?

    I don’t know – because you didn’t give those figures.

    As for the campaign being creatively lauded – it failed to win a single industry award – so where did THAT nugget come from?

    Hard to comment on so shallow (and disingenuous) a post

  24. jack said:

    Madison ave ad agency suck’s ass!!!!!

  25. Listen said:

    Madison Avenue Advertising is completely rigged. They specialize in Astrological motifs and highly effective subconscious subliminal brain-training, using memorable symbols and terms that still exist in our physiological memory.

    These people are truly disgusting, find out why and how they are doing what they are doing, and for whom. Do NOT let your children watch this stuff without properly explaining the hidden magical properties used to effect them negatively. Educate.

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  32. Scott McDougal said:

    Bob,

    If Madison Avenue Ad Agency-type advertising is a scam, how do you explain the building of iconic brands like Marlboro, Nike, Adidas, Coke, Apple, Budweiser, and on and on and on … WITHOUT using direct mail or Internet Marketing? These are huge brands that at one time or another were worth billions! Think you’re gonna build brands like that by marketing one-to-one or building a list? And how are you going to reach the innovators and early adopters with you long copy? Fact is, people don’t have to attention spans to read much copy any more. Direct mail is great for niche products like supplements, newsletters, widgets, etc … but not for building billion dollar businesses. Most direct/internet marketing, even the good stuff, doesn’t have a concept either. It basically tries to argue a customer into a sale with pages and pages of copy. Mad-ave-type copy utilizes smart concepts that readers don’t see coming. Yes it’s clever and entertaining. That’s the point. To get your message heard without boring the consumer. I suggest anyone reading this pick up Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. Or Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, or any issue of CA. Many of these ads cannot be measured to the dollar, which is unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. Big companies cannot simply stop advertising. If a major brand like Coke stops buying TV spots, radio spots, etc they will lose market share to their biggest competitors. As a copywriter whose seen the perspectives of both the direct mail/internet marketing world and is in grad school learning the mad-ave type stuff, my conclusion is that both work for different targets and types of products. Funny TV spots would be a waste for a boutique financial newsletter. However, they are appropriate and extremely profitable for brands like Nike.

  33. Scott McDougal said:

    A lot of what you see on TV is crap, but the really good agencies like Weiden & Kennedy (Nike), Goodby, Preira Odell (Corona), Draft FCB (Miller Lite), Richards Group (Chik-Fil-A), Crispin (the Coke Zero “taste infringement campaign was brilliant) … there are hundreds of great agencies … do really great work! and if they don’t it’s usually because their clients ruin their big ideas with approval by committee, legal departments, and aversion to risk. Google these companies, visit their websites, look and their work, then reconsider the original question Bob posed.

  34. Cathy Reisenwitz said:

    When I interned at an ad agency, I found there to be way too much interest in awards and creativity for my taste. I always wanted to bring it back to how this was going to sell products. That’s why I’m in SEO now!

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