Spray and Pray: Why Does Anyone Still Buy Advertising?

Every time I open a magazine or a newspaper, drive past a billboard or find myself watching network television, I marvel that companies are still foolish -- or vain -- enough to spend a fortune on the kind of advertising I've come to know as "spray and pray." Why, I wonder, does anyone invest such huge sums in a medium that is extravagantly unaccountable? Before the serried ranks of advertising executives organize themselves into defensive howls of protest, let me explain. When you, or your company, pay a small fortune for the full page ad or the prime time spot, you do so in the belief that you're building your brand and thus, in an attenuated and inchoate way, increasing sales. Your ad agency will certainly claim any increased sales are the fruits of their handiwork, but they won't be able to prove it. That great weasel word -- correlation -- will be trotted out to make you feel better about the money you will probably continue to spend. Should your sales fail to materialize, your agency will probably (like every good pusher) insist you need to buy more, not less, from them. And you'll be hooked. The fact that advertising people are almost always incredibly good company, smart and fun to work with, only makes it harder to kick the habit.

The problem with old-style advertising is that it is profoundly unaccountable. It's called "spray and pray" because that's what you're doing: spraying money around and praying it works. You'll never really know. I learned this lesson from two brilliant marketers who used to work for me: Risa Edelstein and Fred Siegel. (Siegel, as you might guess, had worked in advertising and knew exactly how the game was played.) Both were valiant opponents of pray and spray, arguing that you can't measure its impact, you don't know whether it's worked -- and if it does work, you don't know which part of it was effective. Both refused to do it.

They were, as you might expect, dedicated evangelists for online advertising, because you can measure results and constantly fine-tune your message and your ad buys. Between the two of them, they brought our marketing spend right down and our revenue right up. Thanks to them, we moved from an expensive advertising habit to a reliance on hard data about our customers that clarified every decision the company made. We could stop praying because customers started paying.

Advertisers love to claim that the decline in advertising is due to the recession. But I don't think so. I know a number of companies that are slowly but determinedly moving from unaccountable media advertising to traceable, analyzable results. Most have deadlines by which they'll have abandoned "spray and pray'"altogether. If the economy bounced back tomorrow, they wouldn't alter their course. But what puzzles me is this: Why isn't everyone following their example? Why, when you have a form of advertising that is accountable, would you still trust prayer?