The answer to the question is that it is indeed effective. Without it, Nike wouldn't sell the number of shoes it does, Apple wouldn't have seen the same dramatic increases in market share this decade, and Obama wouldn't be leading in the polls. At work I've led studies the past few months that showed advertising in a major market brought in millions of dollars in increased tourism to the state, and an energy conservation campaign led to increased requests for in-home energy efficiency audits and appliance purchases.
But sometimes advertising has unforeseen effects. The question really is how effective is advertising in influencing consumers to act in the way you intended?
A recent study to be published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health indicates that that TV ads that ran between 1999 and 2004 as part of the U.S. government's $1 billion "National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign" do not appear to have dissuaded teens from smoking marijuana.
Instead, researchers discovered evidence that the campaign may have had the reverse effect. Among those teens between the ages of 12 and 18 who saw no more than four ads a month, 82 percent said they "definitely" had no plans to smoke marijuana. Greater ad exposure, however, seemed to lead to diminishing returns. Among those who had seen at least 12 ads a month, only 78 percent expressed intentions not to smoke marijuana.
Though this study leaves some questions unanswered, it does shed some light on the somewhat controversial findings discussed in Martin Lindstrom's recent book Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. In it, Lindstrom discusses the results of the most extensive neuromarketing study ever using brain-scan technology to test how marketing stimuli affect the subconscious. A study of smokers in the UK concluded that exposure to warning labels on tobacco actually encouraged smokers to smoke.
Both studies seem contrarian to expected outcomes, and are evidence of the ever growing need for marketing research to better understand the drivers of consumer behavior. What makes the task so elusive at times is the fact that much of that which motivates us lies beneath our own levels of conscious thought, buried deep in the subconscious realms of our brains. In some ways its like yelling "Fire!" in a theatre. The intent is to save people, but instead it triggers a human response of panic and creates further harm.
So is advertising effective? It can be, but you'll never know for sure will rarely if ever have the desired outcome if you fail to carefully research your audience before you open your mouth to talk to them.