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Sometimes I think the advertising business is its own worst enemy.

Advertising used to be the marketing tool of choice. Now it's down on the list, and when interactive media arrive in a big way, traditional media will be a relic.

But it didn't have to be this way. What advertising was never able to do was prove that it worked. All the other marketing tools were far more effective in linking their medium to sales growth.

Does anyone doubt direct marketing works? Does any one doubt couponing works? But there are doubts about whether advertising works. That battle is still being fought-and most days lost.

I don't blame anybody but advertising professionals.

Ad people, pure and simple, haven't made a very good case for themselves. What got me started in this direction was the latest research study, commissioned by the Association of National Advertisers, purporting to show that advertising works.

It's pathetic. It doesn't present any information advertisers haven't been trying to verify for the past 50 years. And they're no closer now.

The study concluded advertising is a reliable way to increase sales but is less consistent in boosting market share and profits. Six of 11 brands tested showed a positive relationship between advertising and incremental sales in the same year; nine of the 11 did so over a 10-year period.

But increased profit was strongly related to only half the brands in the same year and during the 10-year period. And increased share of market? Forget it. The study reported that gaining share from competitors is tougher than increasing sales.

Not exactly a ringing affirmation of the power of advertising, is it? We don't even know if advertising had anything to do with the sales increases because the companies involved-Procter & Gamble, General Motors and AT&T- were presumably doing all sorts of things to boost sales.

You could substitute any other marketing tool and still get the same result.

I also find it hard to believe that advertising moved the metal for GM during the 10-year period when nothing else seemed to. Unless, of course, the researchers selected the car makes that were the hot sellers during that time.

So let's see. Advertising can be counted on to lift sales, but so can a lot of other things. But don't count on ads to help share of market or profits.

Also, the study made no attempt to distinguish between good and bad advertising. (I had always thought good advertising was what drove sales and bad advertising didn't.)

Gary Stibel, co-founder of New England Consulting Group-which did the study-advised that "given a fixed budget, you're much better off exiting advertising entirely when you don't have effective work, and blowing it all when you have great advertising."

In other words, don't advertise unless it works. We've come a long way, haven't we?M

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