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Commentary

Advertising: The last laugh of corporations

Who benefited from the sight of Paris Hilton seducing a Bentley while devouring an oversized burger? Some experts initially proclaimed Carl&

s Jr.&

s Hilton commercials to be a bold, buzz-producing move. But it was the burger-maker that got buzzed. It squandered millions on airtime and antagonized millions of progressive career women and the PTA crowd alike, all ostensibly to amuse an 18-to-34 male demographic that could have been reached more intelligently and inexpensively.

Sales for the most recent four-week period and for the year to date have risen far more slowly than they did for the same periods a year ago.

So who was the big winner? &

Just Paris Hilton,&

consumer behavior expert Joseph Jaffe told me. Jaffe, author of the recently released &

Life After the 30-Second Spot,&

appears on the money: Hilton&

s face is flashing on the E! network as I write this.

&

The ads increased her brand,&

Jaffe said. &

They thought they were piggybacking on that brand. But the last laugh was on them.&

The last laugh is on American companies as a whole. &

Many go for wool and come back shorn,&

Sancho Panza said. He could have been speaking of corporate America, the unwitting victim of an unconscious conspiracy by consumers, media organizations and ad agencies to separate it from its wallet.

Here&

s a test: How many of your own favorite brands correspond with your favorite ads? Precious few, most likely.

Increasingly, when advertising is not being irritating, it is being ignored, a mere wall of white noise. Americans treat most advertising as a minor nuisance, the price for free or cheap media. The media love forcing an advertising tax on corporations to keep their own prices down &

and ad agencies need it as a well-paying outlet for useless ideas.

Ads were somewhat effective in a less information-overloaded era. Jaffe reported that 34 percent of TV viewers in 1965 could recall a brand advertised the night before. That number dropped to 9 percent by 2000.

Jaffe added that the majority of digital video recorder users now skip at least three-quarters of commercials &

another conspiratorial act that renders the 30-second ad pointless. Among Americans who don&

t screen out commercials or hit the remote, an increasingly large majority pays no attention to them.

Jaffe derided the ad agency myth of mass advertising&

s panacea qualities, pointing out that General Motors, despite typically being one of the top two American advertisers, is going through its share of travails. Procter Gamble, the other top advertiser, has announced it will substantially reduce TV advertising, the lion&

s share of its marketing budget. &

It&

s proof that amplification or chest-beating doesn&

t work very well on its own,&

he says.

In contrast, he noted a range of companies that made it big while spreading the word through ways that did not involve an exorbitant advertising tax: Google, Starbucks, Amazon and eBay, among others.

Our move to an industrial era assured us of a stream of new products that companies tried to push down our throats. They&

ll have to find a different way to push us as consumers, however.

Leslie Grossman, a consumer behavior expert who specializes in marketing to women audiences, noted that women&

s circular, right-brain approach in product choice is increasingly being mimicked by men. When five different beer companies each tell linear men that their beer will maximize their, er, chick outreach efforts, men ironically are forced to go to a more feminine style of circular discernment.

Shrewd marketing experts &

even some dumb ones, know that traditional advertising is a boondoggle. So why is it so hard to escape?

&

Indeed, it&

s a trap,&

marketing guru and author Seth Godin wrote to me last week, &

but I don&

t think it&

s one we&

re going to escape from so cleanly.

&

First, corporations reward employees who do what the boss did &

and what the boss did when she had your job was run ads. It&

s hard to sit still and let the market have its conversation, hard to create products where you have no &

145;proof&

of superiority. Hard to be patient.&

True. But when the alternative is for grown men and women to pay Paris Hilton exorbitant fees in the hopes she might sell an extra hamburger to a pimply teen-ager, it&

s time for American industry to try a little harder.