50% of advertising expenditure is wasted ...

... but nobody really knows which 50% it is.  The O.R. professor who taught marketing when I was a postgraduate introduced us to that mantra, and went on to encourage us to think about the art and science of marketing and advertising, and how they relate to O.R.  The university also had a department of marketing in the business school, and our professor used to modestly(?) claim that he knew more about the subject than the staff of that department. 

There was one undergraduate project relating to marketing and advertising which I remember.  The company inserted reply-paid cards in trade journals, and wanted help analysing the responses.  Typically, there would be a dozen cards from each insertion, from 5000 sent out.  It really was a mug's game trying to make sense of the responses.  The student did learn some useful life skills, as well as the futility of trying to find patterns in small amounts of data. 

On another occasion, we were in a group working at a confectionery company, making products that are household names in the UK, USA and all over the world.  Why, we asked, did such a company bother to spend millions each year?  Simply to keep the company in the national psyche, was the response.  Can you measure the benefits of advertising for the products?  Not really, but we know that if we stopped, sales would fall, but we can't measure by how much! 

On Sunday, we drove into Exeter from the west, and passed an illuminated sign as we drove into the built-up area.  It is one of the signs put up by the council to warn of traffic delays and diversions, and on Sunday afternoon, there were neither delays nor diversions.  The sign read "Could your journey have been made by bicycle?".  In a way, this was an advertisement, encouraging green travel.  But ... was the message in the right place?  Or at the right time?  Addressed to the right people?  All three questions are key for advertisers.  And the answer to all three seemed to be "No".  The signs were on the entrance to the city.  Most of those who passed them would have come from out of the city, possibly from the next towns (10 miles and 15 miles away) or from one of the smaller villages between the city and its neighbouring towns.  They would have travelled along busy roads with no cycle paths.  So the signs were not in the right place - those who saw them would not have chosen to travel by bike in winter for such a distance or on such roads.  The right time and people?  Sunday afternoon is not the time to appeal to commuters; those who pass by might be families, or people visiting the shops, or out for leisure. 

So, here was an advert for which well over 90% of the expenditure will be wasted ... possibly all.  It's a shame, because other adverts for green travel have worked; car-sharing schemes are doing well around here.

The following morning, I was chatting about the sign to some friends, and one said that he had seen a similar sign on another major road into the city on the same Sunday afternoon.  Somebody at the council offices didn't stop to think about the marketing of green travel.

These observations started me thinking about other widespread advertisements and marketing where the advertiser has failed to think about the placing of the message.  (1) I wonder about the effectiveness of trade vehicles which provide a mobile phone number as the only means of contact.  If one sees such a vehicle in Exeter, say, the phone number does not offer any hint of the location of the business.  It might be local, or it might be from the other side of the country.  Maybe the philosophy is like the confectionery company, simply keeping the business in the public eye.  (2) And what about adverts on vehicles which give a URL as address?  Are these effective?  How are people supposed to record the address when they are driving? 

There's scope for some measurement to be made, but I suspect that we will be back to the opening lesson, the futility of trying to find patterns in small amounts of data. 


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