Monday, March 16, 2009

The purpose of advertising

There has been some debate on the subject of the Sri Lankan advertising industry. I am not involved in this industry nor do I have a background in sales or marketing but there is a question that I would like answered.

What is the purpose of advertising?

To me, the answer is straightforward: to improve sales and ultimately profits.

Business exists for only one purpose: to make a profit. People talk of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and a business, like everybody in society needs to comply with certain standards but fundamentally a business does not exist to perform CSR. It exists to make a profit.

There is a different debate, mostly concerning bahavioural psychology, as to whether businesses actually strive to provide the best return to shareholders, but for this discussion I think it can be ignored.

Working on this principle, the role of advertising, as in every other aspect of business is to improve profits. Advertising is primarily concerned with sales (I admit that there are other reasons for advertising too) but its main purpose would be to increase sales.

This brings me to a second question: if the purpose of advertising is to improve profits, then should advertisements be judged purely on this basis?

Stated in another form, does it matter how nice is looks or how well it is put together as long it does its job? Extending this further, does it matter whether an advertisement or even a whole campaign copies something done somewhere else? Is it necessary that an advertisement be original and display a certain artistic qualities?

After all the whole business of management education is based on attempting to derive successful principles from the practices of the past. Why do we read case studies? So that we may draw on examples that may be useful in similar situations in the future and apply them where possible. If a particular advertisement or campaign is successful in one market then is there any harm in copying it or adapting it in another market? To me, as long as it works, it does not matter where it comes from or how ugly it is.

Advertisements are only a means to an end, a mere tool to be used. It is true that there are elements of ingenuity that are involved in the process of developing advertisements but I tend to think that people get rather too carried away by these things.

An advertisement is not art. The fact that it seems to be regarded as such in Sri Lanka is a reflection of the debased state of society.

An advertisement may draw on certain elements and use the mediums that are found in true art but no one should regard something as intrinsically base as an advertisement as art.

There will be instances when the maker of posters or a commercial on film or television displays great skill in the use of the medium and we may justly admire such skill and be grateful that our senses have not been assaulted but it is not art.


Me said...

I think it's an art. But don't mind me, I believe pornography is an art too.

Dee said...

It usually starts with a concept, a creative idea. then it goes through a process of many people, creatives, copy writers, graphic designers, voicing, studio... It's a collaboration of talents which brings in the final cut. So in a way, it's collaborative art formed around a creative concept.
Also like a true finance person you hit the nail on its head, linking advertising to profits and sales. Yes, it is an element, but to me, it’s also simply building something solid, which in an essence, instantly clicks values of the brand in the mind of the customer. Creating Action and helping them choose you instead of the other. A company would be nowhere if not for Marcom and the idea and benefits of the brand put out to the customer by the Ad people.

Delilah said...

Interesting point of view. I think advertising can be art, but it doesnt necessarily have to be art every single time. Effective advertising may not be the most creative, while super creative ads may not be very effective. Sometimes though it can be both.

TheWhacksteR said...

yes, the bottom line is that advertisings sole purpose is to bring in profits and more profits, over the long or short term, just like the organization itself.

But i disagree with you on thepoint that it is not a n art form. it is and very much so. isnt it an art to put just the right amount of psychological pressure on a person and make him/her buy a product?

And also? what is art at the ned of the day? cannot the running of an economy or the finances of an organization be an art form too? 'art' is a very vague word.

As for CSR and Brand vlues and the rest of it, they all exist for profit, and maybe you are right and advertising should solely be 'judged' as to how effective it is and not how 'artsy' it is.

But i suspect the Chillies and the SLIM awards both have the common motive of improving the industry, and even though just focussing on creativity alone may not be the answer, there are many people in SL, experienced ad people who believe in it, so one never knows.

pissu perera said...

interesting. hope you're ready for the haterade that might possibly come your way from the "creative" types out there.

I once went for an IAA debate on creativity vs effectiveness. i'm not sure if the whole things was a staged publicity stunt for the chillies, but the debate was interesting and the marketing team who were arguing for effectiveness were winning the argument hands down. their point was simple, and to me, it made sense - it doesn't matter how creative the ad is if it doesn't deliver results in terms of increase in sales at the end of the day, and if the ad DOES deliver, then it doesn't matter if it wasn't a creative masterpiece - pretty much your argument. the ad folks argued that a creative ad and an effective ad are one and the same, and they kept harping on about ads building brands.

i'm no ad person or a creative type for that matter, so this could be my ignorance, but for me, when i decide to buy something the ad is something i never even think of. and really, if ads influence people i doubt some of the big names out there would be getting any business at all because their ads are horrid. eg: mobitel has some really nice ads, but i see them and i forget after that. their main competitor has ads that at best, make me cringe and at worst, make me want to throw something at the radio or tv but i stick with them for various other reasons (out of which customer service certainly isn't one). but like i said, that could just be me.

long comment. i'm going to stop now.

indi said...

The best thing I've heard about advertising is that running ads won't necessarily get you sales, but not running ads will lose them. You have to maintain some presence to exist in the marketplace.

However, I think most ads overdo the 'creative' when what's needed is information. I think creative is only relevant in how elegantly it communicates the message you need to communicate. I think simply putting the product name and price in a template and releasing it fast is better 9 times out of 10.

David Blacker said...

Ok, I do work in advertising, and am one of Pissu's 'creative types', so lemme chime in here.

I disagree that all advertising exists to increase sales & profits -- at least not directly. The latter is the goal of marketing, and business itself. Advertising is a part of marketing, and can contribute to the goal if used correctly. But not all ads are directly about pushing sales -- though some are. Advertising is primarily about building a brand and making it memorable in the target market's mind, so that when he's out there looking for a product you are selling, your brand will be top of mind.

Advertising can't sell a crap product, or even a mediocre one, if your competitor's got something better and is advertising it. So if Dialog's got a better product than Mobitel, and if the TG knows it, no amount of good ads by Mobitel is gonna generate sales.

As for advertising creativity vs effectivity, I don't see any debate. Advertising is about being effective -- creativity is a means to increase effectivity. It's not an end in itself. However, one needs to know what effect the advertising needs to generate. If you wanna get people to walk into your shop on a particular day for a special discount, then the ad needs to communicate that -- ie information. If you want the TG to feel good about buying your brand, then you need ads that effect the TG's self-image. So you see it's all endlessly variable.

If anyone's seen the case study on the relaunch of BMW UK, it's clear. A fairly creative ad campaign aimed at the moneyed working and middle classes with the goal of changing the perception of BMW's positioning. Highly effective and oft used as an example of effective advertising.

In the end advertising is not an exact science, but nor is it purely art -- it's more of an applied art. If you're born with it, it can be crafted, honed and directed. But it's almost impossible to acquire from scratch.

Finally, the best ads are very creative. Judging effectivity, however, isn't always easy, and so often lack of data makes the most simple ads with the most direct goals the easiest to gauge as having been effective or not..

N B said...


Lovely post. Will answer all your questions in a seperate post. Just 2 days :-) Just a little note to say I have acknowledged :-) Reply by thursday on my blog......

Cheers :-)

thekillromeoproject said...

Not all advertising campaigns are focused on increasing immediate sales figures. Some are more focused towards building a certain brand image and creating a connection with the target audience.

So while the ultimate goal of advertising is to gain more sales and market share in the long run, the equation of:

X ad campaigns = Y sales

is not a very solid foundation to judge advertising by.

Jack Point said...

Thanks everyone for commenting.

Delilah sums up my views very neatly.

At a philosophical level I find it hard to reconcile something that is largely driven by commercial needs with a concept of art.

Should'nt art be simply an expression of the artists innermost spirit? Preferably unsullied by such things as money, although paid commissions are often a regular part of an artists livelihood?

Need to get back to work, will try to answer the other respondents later.

Jack Point said...

Perhaps the distinction between the fine arts and non-fine arts, sometimes known as craft will be useful here?

I just did a bit of searching, seems that advertising is sometimes classified as commercial art.

David Blacker said...

"At a philosophical level I find it hard to reconcile something that is largely driven by commercial needs with a concept of art. "

Well, what about design -- car, fashion, furniture? I think those are all forms of commercial art. Advertising itself isn't commercial art, though the latter is part of the former.

Jack Point said...

DB, yes it seems that design, fashion, cars and the others that you mention could qualify as craft or decorative art.

Jack Point said...

Me, the vast majority of porn is not art because its objective is purely to titillate. There may be a blurring of lines between certain erotic art and porn but I think teh distinction for the most part should be fairly clear.

Perhaps I can pose another question: Should'nt art last? ie it should be relevant to later generations as well. Are there any examples of advertisements that have outlasted the product that being advertised?

I can think of one example - the song Waltzing Matilda, which was used as an advertisement for Billy's Tea.

Jack Point said...


thanks for that comment.

"when i decide to buy something the ad is something i never even think of. and really, if ads influence people i doubt some of the big names out there would be getting any business at all because their ads are horrid."

I tend to disagree on this though. Just to draw something from my own experience. I was out shopping with a friend one day and said he needed to buy shampoo. I looked around the shelves and spotted a Garnier shampoo and I said, hey I think that is good, its a French brand. He said "What? That's Indian". I was surprised as to how I came to the conclusion that it was a good French brand since I had never used the product before.

It then came back to me, although I never watch TV, in the gym while doing my cardio exercises I'm usually watching the the TV and Garnier ads are always running on the channels. Although I did not realise it, it had made a subtle impact on me that prompted me to reach for the product when I saw it in the supermarket.

Jack Point said...

Dee: agreed.

What a brand does is to contribute towards longer term profitability.

TheWhacksteR said...

hmmm but various definitions of art are just as subjective. it doesnt really matter if the person defining it as something thats 'long lasting' or 'not titillating' is well known and respected. 'Art' is still a very subjective term and will remain so.

Its not like the number one or Newtons third law which are scientific concepts which cannot easily be blurred and shown to be otherwise.

Therefore, the definition of art can be anything, and in modern days, it is mostly decided on a basis of consensus. but that being as it is, one cannot really dispute anyone who calls a simple rock on the ground 'a work of art' because from their perspective, they are right. so therefore by default, if a person wants it to be; advertising, porn etc can be art. it really doesnt matter what anyone else thinks. its how the individual appreciates something.

a friend and i were having a discussion on what 'poetry'is and what it means and came to similar conclusions.

N B said...

Hi :-)

Please see my reply at

David Blacker said...

"Should'nt art last? ie it should be relevant to later generations as well. Are there any examples of advertisements that have outlasted the product that being advertised?"

Art should also influence life. The modern version of Santa Clause that the world accepts today, was in fact created by Coca Cola early in the 20th century, using their brand colours -- before that, St Nick mostly wore green.

"when i decide to buy something the ad is something i never even think of."

That's exactly what we as advertisers want -- forget our ad, but remember the brand and what it stands for. Job done. All too often I remember a great ad, but I can't remember the brand it was advertising.

Serendib_Isle said...

The purpose of advertising is to increase sales, and build brands.

Ad awards such as Effies are there to judge the performance of advertising. Agencies no longer claim that the effect of advertising cannot be measurable. It is directly reflected in effectiveness in communication (marketing indicators) as well as actual turnover (sales indicators). CSR was born out of tax reasons, not because they felt for the needy.

As a result of successful advertising, there are brands that are perceived as better than the others. A BMW would take you from A to B, so would a Maruti. Need I say more about being different from one another, even though it serves the same purpose? No, copying doesn’t work. Be different.

Advertising is not science either. The art of advertising cannot be explained in a comment to someone who seems to see no difference between a price-list and an ad. Sorry, this is what mediocre advertising does to Sri Lankans!