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Assault on Advertising

If television commercials were still as accountable for results as Al Gore thinks they are, the Internet probably would have gone the way of the CB radio sometime during his second term in the Clinton White House.

Al Gore may be a visionary on global warming. He may have brilliantly parlayed his epic electoral loss into $100 million in personal net worth. Who knows — he may even be elected president someday.

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But in his latest book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about the present state of television advertising in general and its true status relative to America’s democratic process in particular.

Nobody questions the dominant role of thirty-second television commercials in political campaigns. About $2 billion will be spent on television ads during the 2008 election cycle. As Mr. Gore himself notes, something like 80 to 90 percent of the money raised by candidates is used to buy TV time.

What he fails to recognize is what a colossal waste of money that is. Instead, he stretches back to his 1984 Senate campaign for anecdotal evidence of the “power” of television advertising:

“After a long and detailed review of all the polling information and careful testing of potential TV commercials, the anticipated response from my opponent’s campaign and the planned response to the response, my campaign advisers made a recommendation and prediction that surprised me with its specificity: ‘If you run this ad at this many ‘points’ (a measure of the advertising buy), and if (your opponent) responds as we anticipate and then we purchase this many points to air our response to his response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5 percent in your lead in the polls.”

So that’s what the Gore campaign did, and guess what? After three weeks, his lead increased by exactly 8.5 percent. Just like his advisers said it would.

With all respect, Mr. Gore, 1984 was a really, really long time ago. Why, back in those days, Mt. Kilimanjaro still had snow. Long gone is the time when you could predict that kind of result with that kind of precision.

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In fact, the only thing for certain about traditional television advertising these days is that it does not provide a reliable return on marketing investment. Indeed, a recent survey by The HUB magazine found about 70 percent of senior-level marketers in agreement that the effectiveness of traditional TV advertising is not what it used to be.

Obviously, the Internet is a key driver of the media fragmentation that has rendered television advertising less effective than it used to be. At the same time, its powerful potential to connect with consumers is a driving force behind its own extraordinary growth as a marketing medium.

One would think that the former vice-president, with his early and intense interest in the “information superhighway,” would understand this better than most people. However, a quick read of the book’s acknowledgements reveals that while he consulted with numerous experts in constitutional law, neuroscience, psychology, history, the internet and the environment, he apparently didn’t take the time to talk to anyone in the advertising business.

The result is an otherwise thoughtful and persuasive book about the decline of reason in political discourse that misses the mark where the role of television advertising in American life is concerned.

The issue Mr. Gore raises isn’t limited to whether television commercials produce measurable results, either. There’s a larger matter here that goes to the very heart of the future of marketing itself.

Al Gore’s premise is that because television advertising is so powerful, it is evil. While he admits he was happy that his television ads worked, he also says he was troubled by how easily voters were manipulated. His point is that television advertising — and, by extension, marketing itself — is all about tricking people.

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In this case he goes back not just 23 years but more than 50 years — to the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith — to make his point:

“In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith first described the way in which advertising altered the classical relationship by which supply and demand are balanced over time by the invisible hand of the marketplace. Modern advertising campaigns, he pointed out, were beginning to create high levels of demand for products that consumers never knew they wanted, much less needed.”

That may have been very true at the time (and sometimes is still true today), but the future of marketing is not about manipulating us as much as it is about serving us. Yes, the business of marketing may well be about promoting things we never knew we wanted or needed (did anyone ever ask for an iPod?) but only within the context of what is relevant to the way we live our lives today. Any other approach is doomed to failure.

Al Gore probably is right that the level of political dialogue in this country is at an all-time low. It may be true that what citizens really want and need from our government (both parties and all branches) is being ignored as never before. I couldn’t agree more that the more engaged citizenry that Al Gore advocates is essential to a successful democracy.

But the problem is not the power of advertising; it’s the weakness of politicians who use “social-networks” to raise billions of dollars on the internet, only to short-circuit that conversation and waste their money on outdated, ineffective, negative and often outright insulting television advertising campaigns.

And that’s the inconvenient truth.

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