Advertising vs Public Relations

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 5.22.12 PMPast posts on this blog have addressed some of the dramatic changes that are currently turning traditional marketing strategies on their head. The press release is no longer solely for the press (see below); published articles are oftentimes LESS valuable than those posted online (see below below); targeting lots of small audiences (bloggers) may ultimately yield BIGGER results than targeting one big entity (Wall Street Journal).

Another area of marketing strategy that has completely gone topsy-turvy is the use of advertising and public relations. As businesses shore up their marketing plans for 2009, questions regarding advertising vs public relations are once again taking center stage and deserve some attention. Here are my top thoughts on the subject…

Once upon a time, advertising was used to create initial awareness and interest in a product. Public relations was used to support the advertising campaign. Today, the opposite is true. PR is most effective at creating awareness for a product and establishing a new brand. Advertising has taken the supporting role. It is now best used to remind people about a product they are familiar with and have already come to enjoy.

There are two main reasons for this dramatic shift. The first is credibility – or in the case of advertising – the lack there of. Consumers are more marketing-savvy today than ever before. In fact, studies have shown that an average person is more likely to REJECT a premise once it is put forth in an advertisement.

In their book The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR, Al and Laura Ries ( give a great example of how Firestone tried to use advertising to squelch fears that their tires were unsafe. In 2004, national headlines told the story of Firestone’s massive recall due to tread failure. In response, Firestone ran its “Making It Right” campaign that featured the company’s CEO, John Lampe telling consumers that Firestone had reviewed and corrected manufacturing problems and now their tires were safer than ever before. The result? A pre and post survey of consumer opinion found that people who saw the ad campaign were more likely to think Firestone tires were UNsafe. Apparently, the credibility of the advertisement was so low that viewers thought to themselves that if a company had their CEO make claims regarding the safety of the product, the opposite must be true!

Public relations, on the other hand, is all about credibility. It is not the company itself that is making claims. It’s an “objective” reporter telling the story, or a blogger or a critic. Deserved or not, the mere fact that a story is printed in a publication or on an online forum gives it credibility that advertising lacks.

The second big reason that public relations now trumps advertising is simply “focus of attention.” Today’s consumer has been inundated with advertisements from the moment they are aware of their surroundings till the day they expire. Advertisements are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. As I sit here in my office, I can look around and see dozens of advertisements; It’s on the back of a magazine, on my computer screen, on the container of chewing gum sitting on my desk and on the electric bill sitting on top of my inbox.

To survive this constant barrage of marketing noise, consumers have learned to automatically tune out advertisements. Businesses spend millions of dollars each year placing print ads in newspapers and magazines only to have readers ignore them in favor of the featured articles. Take note of your own behavior. When you read a newspaper, do you even see the advertisements or have you learned to tune them out? And if you notice one, do you read its message thoroughly or do you simply turn the page?

Public relations, on the other hand, is the content that consumers look for when they read a magazine or watch the news. It is the subject matter that makes up an editorial or a by-line article. While readers are bypassing the advertisements, they are focusing on the public relations content.

Given these two significant factors – credibility and focus of attention, it’s easy to see why public relations now serves the critical role of introducing a product or service, of gaining consumer interest and building brand loyalty. And it’s why advertising has been relegated to the supporting role of reminding people that the product/service/ exists. Advertisements are now used to reinforce the messages that have already been created through PR.

Clients often ask me if they should advertise. The first thing that I tell them is that successful advertising is an uphill battle and that it should be used in conjunction with other marketing activities. I also tell them that it is a long-term commitment. If they are thinking of running a single ad in a trade publication or a couple of ads in the local business journal, they should save their money. The only hope of obtaining reasonable advertising ROI will come through an ongoing campaign that is both high volume and constant.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

I am particularly interested in hearing from those that can share first-hand accounts regarding the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of past advertising campaigns. If you can, include the type of advertising, where it was placed (newspaper, online etc.), how often it ran and other pertinent data.

I look forward to your thoughts.


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