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A recent American Advertising Federation survey reports "lukewarm support for advertising as a tool to help companies grow." There's no news here. We've been hearing the rumors for years: "Mass advertising won't make it to the millennium."

But don't sell the beach house yet. The new wave of highly targeted marketing techniques -- addressable, interactive and database -- are obviously important, but they're no substitute for the Big Guy, even as he's slowing down.

Mass media are becoming less effective. Just count the TV commercials. Falling ratings means less inventory to sell, so spots are being added to make up the shortfall. Magazines have a different problem. They increasingly are handicapped by inflated readership measurements producing pallid plans that claim readers who are not being delivered.

Even with the problems, mass media serve a unique function. Advertisers need to remember brands are leaky buckets. They lose customers all the time. Mass advertising helps keep the buckets full. It fixes leaks by reminding existing buyers, and it tops off the bucket by attracting new ones. It also builds brand awareness among those that aren't even in the bucket yet.


The magic is that mass advertising does all three simultaneously and at low cost. It helps keep current buyers, helps add new buyers and builds brand awareness and saliency.

TV is an exceptional "fill the leaky bucket" medium because of its high reach and low cost-per-thousands. At a $10 CPM, a half-dozen sales-per-thousand can usually cover the cost of the advertising -- and also the cost of building awareness with the 994 other potential customers who did not buy this time but may in the future. When new-wave marketers talk about mass media waste, it's these potential customers they're complaining about.

Pragmatists who argue exposures not resulting in a sale are wasted are as wrong-headed as apologists who argue that advertising shouldn't be expected to sell at all. Some exposures sell, but all exposures build the foundation for the next sale.

Mass advertising appears to work by simply being there. When we say TV is intrusive, we mean the commercial appears on the screen, like it or not. Serendipity is its twin. Millions of viewers, listeners and readers don't have to do anything to get a brand's message except be around when it is delivered. So advertising informs millions of consumers who would not think to ask. And millions of consumers who just happen to need the product act on the brand information they just happen to see, read or hear.


Those qualities -- intrusiveness and serendipity -- are equally important for launching new brands, growing existing brands and for maintaining mature ones because getting new users is always the key. Current customer databases are not much help. The challenge is to reach out beyond the current customer base. Let everyone who has need for the product know about it and let them decide.

There are marketers that appear to be confused about the value of most consumers. Heavy-user strategies based upon the so-called "80/20 rule" are a simple case of marketing dyslexia. They have the numbers wrong. Twenty percent of users seldom account for 80% of a brand's volume. Twenty percent usually account for about half; 80% account for the remaining half. Try and make your contribution to profit on half your volume.

While intrusiveness is the signature of mass media, reach is its soul. And here I think is the nub of the misdiagnosis. Falling TV ratings are often confused with the death of mass advertising. Some marketers question whether the world as we know it can survive the loss of the 20-rated TV show.


What a puzzling reaction. Smaller ratings provide higher reach-per-dollar because schedules can be dispersed more widely (more available units) and they cost less per point. Optimizers have repeatedly demonstrated this. There are other under-exploited ways to reach large groups of consumers -- some old, some new. Out-of-home, for example, which is going through an amazing renaissance, and the Internet, which, in the person of America Online, is in fact a new mass medium.

Champions of one-on-one marketing also boast of its tighter targeting and superior return on investment. This misses the point badly. Efficiency is not sufficiency. Early life insurance marketing is a good case history. The highest ROI was produced by hiring a lot of commission salesmen who sold policies to family and friends. This worked up to a point, but then it was necessary to create a real marketing program with agent training, sales materials and advertising to build a substantial business.

High returns from a small group are not sufficient to build or sustain a large brand (or a marketing career). When these targeted programs are pushed to do more, diminishing marginal returns set in and the ROI sinks like a stone. Mass marketing does not have these severe limitations of scale. That's why it's called mass.

Mass advertising, far from dead, is unique and irreplaceable because communication with consumers you don't know much about is essential to building and main- taining brands. It is part of a marketing process that makes products and information about products available to everyone and then lets them decide -- because consumers are much better at choosing us than we will ever be at targeting them.

Mr. Ephron is principal in Ephron Consultancy, New York. This article is based in part on material presented at the Advertising Research Foundation 1999 annual meeting by Mr. Ephron and Branch Watkins, director, consumer and market

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