Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2017

Then or now?

Was advertising ever effective?

In August 2002, marketing strategists Al Ries and Laura Ries (father and daughter) came out with a book, The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. It was a bolt from the blue for the advertising industry, which was left smarting from the contention that advertising was not working anymore. “Advertising is the wind; PR is the sun,” declared the authors, deriving this comparison from an Aesop fable, in which the wind and the sun argue about who is the more powerful.

The book stirred up a hornet’s nest. Caught off-guard, advertising aficionados could not immediately respond to many of the contentions in the book. Consider these examples:

  • “You can’t launch a new brand with advertising because advertising has no credibility. It’s the self-serving voice of a company anxious to make a sale.”
  • “Advertising cannot start a fire. It can only fan a fire after it has been started.”
  • “Advertising cannot change minds. Advertising cannot move brands from one position to another inside a mind.”

The book came out at a time when traditional advertising was strong and digital was embryonic. Yet, it was a time when some of the world’s most iconic brands had gone global with little or no advertising, purely on the power of PR, giving credence to the Ries’ declaration that advertising was passé and PR the way forward.

Among such brands one can count BlackBerry, Microsoft, Starbucks, The Body Shop, Virgin Atlantic and even Harry Potter. Starbucks, for example, spent less than $10 million on advertising in its first 10 years. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks once remarked that “it is now difficult to launch a product through consumer advertising because customers don’t really pay attention as they did in the past, nor do they believe the message. I look at the money spent on advertising and it surprises me that people still believe they are getting returns on their investments.”


One result of technology entering advertising is that the use of traditional media is declining. Khaadi, for example, has practically done away with billboard advertising. Coca-Cola seldom (if ever) advertises in print. Both brands, along with several others, are shifting to digital platforms – their own and external paid options. So much so that digital too is becoming cluttered and making huge demands on people’s time for attention.


Believability, or even more accurately, credibility, is what advertising should be about. One can argue that whereas PR focuses on credibility, advertising focuses on creativity, a word that can mean different things to different people. Some may even argue that the ad agencies proclivity for ‘creativity’ is driven by a desire to win awards more than anything else. Perhaps a harsh indictment, but undeniably a contributing factor. “No matter how creative the advertising, no matter how appropriate the medium, there is just no way around the issue of credibility... an advertising message is perceived to be one-sided, biased, selfish and company-oriented, rather than consumer-oriented,” wrote the Ries’.

Creativity in advertising often used to rely on catchy jingles that became entrenched in our heads. Dreamy foreign locations or complicated shoots were not deemed vital to make a TVC; the jingle did it all – build a liking for the brand, create high recall and drive sales. Examples of effective jingles of the old days abound; Chai Chahiye (Lipton), Ae Khuda Meray Abbu Salamat Rahain (State Life Insurance Corporation of Pakistan), Piyaray Bachcho Kiwi Kiya Hai (Kiwi Shoe Polish) and Subha Binaca Shaam Binaca (Binaca toothpaste) are some jingle-based ads that come readily to mind.

Then somewhere down the road, jingles, for some inexplicable reason, went out of advertising and what came to be known as ‘aspirational’ situations became the core of advertising creativity with a heavy reliance on exotic locations and celebrities. Does this still work? Does an exotic location excite consumers into believing that they too will be serenading at such a location if they start to use the product advertised? Will today’s well-informed consumer believe that the celebrity in the ad actually uses the brand advertised?

Of course, in the 15 years since the Ries’ book was published, much else has changed. For one thing, there has been a decline in the role of the ad agency, which was previously a one-stop solution for all services. Now the ad agency is largely the ‘creative’ agency only, with specialised agencies mushrooming rapidly to take care of media buying (taking away the biggest chunk of revenue from the agencies), OOH, activation, digital and so forth. At the same time, rapid developments in ICT have opened up more options in terms of concepts, channels, media, consumer engagement and reach.

One result of technology entering advertising is that the use of traditional media is declining. Khaadi, for example, has practically done away with billboard advertising. Coca-Cola seldom (if ever) advertises in print. Both brands, along with several others, are shifting to digital platforms – their own and external paid options. So much so that digital too is becoming cluttered and making huge demands on people’s time for attention. In addition, several leading independent portals and individual digital influencers have gone commercial, charging to put up posts. And the target audience (the public) is realising this.

So although at present digital is ruling the roost, the time cannot be far off when the digital bandwagon will have so many brands riding on it, that the medium too may start receiving the same treatment as TV now does – audiences watching a programme on TV tend to switch to another channel as soon as there is a commercial break.

Holistically though, advertising still enjoys sizeable budgets from most leading brands. However, the 64-dollar question is still how much has advertising evolved over the decades in terms of being really effective in achieving the overarching objective of driving sales?


One can argue that whereas PR focuses on credibility, advertising focuses on creativity, a word that can mean different things to different people. Some may even argue that the ad agencies proclivity for ‘creativity’ is driven by a desire to win awards more than anything else. Perhaps a harsh indictment, but undeniably a contributing factor.


In this context, while many things may have changed over the past 70 years, the key factor that has remained constant (if anything, it has gained importance) is credibility. Today’s consumer of everything, from laser surgery to toilet cleaners, is an extremely well-informed individual. The information overload, the fast and easy access to data, the immediate sharing of experiences and opinions globally, combined with higher education levels, all mean that people consciously or subconsciously, aggressively or passively, continuously or irregularly, question the credibility of all claims (promises) – whether brand claims through advertising, or claims by politicians!

Then there is also a sea-change in consumer demographics. This is a vast topic that demands a comprehensive analysis on its own. Here, just one aspect of the topic will illustrate how important it is to advertising – and indeed marketing – that the young today are more independent in their decision-making and have become the driving force behind retail spending.

Having said all the above, the question is whether advertising has become better or worse over the course of Pakistan’s 70-year journey. Perhaps this question does not have a black and white answer, even if industry professionals will hasten to emphatically respond in the affirmative. To reach some sort of conclusion, compare and evaluate the advertising then with that of today in at least three key respects and decide for yourself.

  • What was the credibility quotient of advertising then compared to what it is (or is not) now?
  • To what extent did advertising influence people to change brand preferences and brand loyalty, then and now?
  • If advertising is about creating recall, was advertising of then more effective (with its jingles), or is advertising of now (with high repetition) more effective?

And a last question to conclude the discussion by coming back to our starting point. Can brands achieve more through less advertising and more PR? I think so. There are some products that one uses because one has to. There are some brands one is stuck to because of habit. As for all the rest, it is highly advisable to use PR to create credibility and goodwill and get target audiences to relate to them, and then use creative and not hard-sell advertising to reinforce the PR message, create recall and build brand loyalty.

Zohare Ali Shariff is CEO, Asiatic Public Relations Network and blogs at www.bobbhai.com.pk