Tuning Out Ads?


By Al Ries and Laura Ries

HarperBusiness -- 295pp -- $24.95


By Sergio Zyman with Armin Brott

Wiley -- 239pp -- $27.95

This fall, many on Madison Avenue are feeling sanguine about the prospects for TV advertising, the default choice of big marketers. Demand for airtime is brisk. And worries that viewers will get siphoned away by the Internet--or learn to bypass ads with the aid of personal video recorders--seem to be receding into the future.

Two books have arrived just in time to damp the good vibes. One is by Coca-Cola Co.'s former marketing chief, Sergio Zyman, who is now a consultant, and the other is by Al Ries and Laura Ries, a father-and-daughter consulting team. In different ways, both volumes attempt to upend the tenet that advertisements--and expensive TV spots in particular--are the indispensable foundation of marketing.

Both books make a simple point: The efficacy of advertising has been dulled by media clutter and consumer cynicism. "Advertising has no credibility with consumers, who are increasingly skeptical of its claims and whenever possible are inclined to reject its messages," the Rieses declare in The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR. Zyman makes the same point, in a more pugnacious tone, in The End of Advertising As We Know It.

Even if the message is no longer entirely novel, it is noteworthy to have authors such as these deliver it. In Zyman's role as Coke's "Ayacola" in control of an immense marketing budget, he not so long ago represented the elite within the marketing Establishment. As the consultant who popularized the idea of "positioning" brands for different consumer segments, Al Ries has probably wielded even more influence over marketers' thinking. When movers of such stature start exhorting companies to put fewer eggs in the ad basket, it suggests that a fundamental rethinking is under way.

Unfortunately, both books are a mite slapdash. Polemical in nature, they bludgeon readers with heated rhetoric and repetition. But the examples provided are inconclusive. Moreover, the authors tend to misstate the objectives of the companies whose misguided ad campaigns they criticize. In some cases, they simply get their facts wrong.

So if massive ad bombardments no longer are the way to build brands, what do these authors recommend? Zyman provides an informal primer on other elements of marketing, from packaging to celebrity endorsers. The Rieses' prescription is simply to employ public relations. For them, PR encompasses anything that might generate word of mouth. Citing such companies as Starbucks Corp. and Amazon.com Inc., the Rieses argue that ads are rarely effective in building a new brand, although they can play a role in sustaining an established brand. As for image-building ads that don't contain a clear sales proposition, that's just "fishing without a hook."

Both books are pungent, but not always persuasive. To take just one counter-example: Ads clearly were a prominent part of the Amazon.com launch. The Rieses never satisfactorily explain why PR deserves the credit for that success. Still, if the books prompt companies and their agencies to reconsider how they spend precious marketing dollars, both sides will be better off.

By Gerry Khermouch

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