Why 99.9% of your ads will never be seen

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times square signs


That’s the number of ads the average citygoer is exposed to on any given day, according to a study by Yankelovich.

So, before this day ends, I will have been asked to buy something, in some way shape or form, 5,000 times. And, of those, I’ll buy about five, including food.

I am awake about 50,000 seconds a day.

Were I to spend even a second simply noting that each ad existed, without even considering their merit, 10% of my day would be gone.

Were I to spend another two seconds making a conscious decision to say no to the 4,995 I did not act on, that would evaporate another 20% or so of my day.

I don’t have 30% of each day to give up to noticing and refusing ads and offers, so, instead, I learn to do what everyone does…

I simply tune them out.

They may remain a part of my visual spectrum, but I literally stop processing them. It’s like they don’t exist. I don’t do this voluntarily, I do it automatically as a mechanism to free enough processing power to take care of the more important daily decisions and stimuli in my life.

If I cannot edit, I cannot live.

It’s like I’ve installed ad-blocker software in my visual-cortex.

Knowing this, then, why do businesses of any sort continue to advertise in a way that guarantees 99.9% of their messages will not get through? Why does the shotgun approach to advertising even exist anymore?

Branding, oh please!

If it’s really that important to build a big brand, the vast majority of businesses would be far better served turning all their branding energy and expenditures to making their products and services a serious notch more kick-ass and giving their clients a reason to evangelize the hell out of them to everyone they know.

Buying someone’s belief in your product or service through interruption and repetition is not only marginally-effective, but maximally-expensive.

So, for all you small businesses out there looking to get through my brain’s ad-blocker, here’s a bit of advice…

Spend your money blowing the minds of a small number of people who are on my brain’s whitelist…

Then let them show me why I just might die without what you want me to have.

Am I off-base here?

Have you experienced a similar thing as a consumer? Is it time to shift your ad-strategy?

What do you think?

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14 responses

14 responses to “Why 99.9% of your ads will never be seen”

  1. Matt Hanson says:

    Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..

    Matt Hanson

  2. Chad says:

    While I agree that some products and services would benifit from spending more of the ad dollars on creating a better product, a vast majority of products are only ‘brands’ and therefore only really benifit from that type advertising. Budwiser beer is a perfect example. It is power ‘brand’, NOT a great beer. It is one of the worlds top selling beer only because of the ‘brain wash branding’ that comes from millions of dollars in brand type advertising.

    One of the most powerful ‘brand washing’ campaigns of all time, MILK. Is it really good for you, or do you just think it is? You can’t reallly evangelize a product that is the number one allergn in humans. 🙂

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    I absolutely agree with you when it comes to advertising for small businesses. The more limited the budget, the less you can afford a branding campaign. Money is better spent elsewhere.

    However, for large corporations there is value in branding. Take banner ad, which can be useful for that purpose. This recent Marketing Sherpa study talks about the value of banner ads for branding purposes:


    You have to be a large corporation to afford the kind of money that branding campaigns involve. Think of it like TV advertising. While some people block them out or go to the kitchen when commercials come on, still there’s a percentage who are exposed to the commercials. (Why else can’t I get those commercial jingles out of my brain?)


  4. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Chad & Anita – Sounds like we’re all pretty much in agreement on the issue for small biz.

    When it comes to mass-market, fully-commoditized product, I agree that it is a far more difficult challenge to find growth through innovation capable of fueling word of mouth or even viral message distribution.

    But I am not sold on the fact that spending money on interruption and repetition is a better option than innovation.

    Check out this speech from Malcom Gladwell on how a massively commoditized product like spaghetti sauce was transformed by a serious bit of research and the willingness to take a risk, rather than trying to outspend competitors to create a more pervasive brand.


    I guess my question for big corporations with mass-market products and services is not so much whether money spent on branding has some value, but whether it could have significantly more value when allocated differently between innovation and communication.

    Let me know what you think about Malcolm’s video, I found it fascinating!

  5. Dustin says:

    Jonathan: I think you seriously over-estimate your (and everyone else’s) ability to “tune them out”. Everyone *says* that. Meanwhile advertising is a 200+ BILLION dollar industry, and growing exponentially over the last 20 years. Most of us might “tune them out” in terms of whether we make a decision, on the spot, to buy a product, but advertising sells more than products, it sells values — ideas of what the good life looks like, and what we look like living it. And that *definitely* has an influence.

    Note, too, only a portion of those 5,000 ads are actual ads. Much of it is far subtler — product placements (I’d tell you to watch Sony Picture’s “The Holiday” for a good example, but it’s too unbearable a movie to actually watch) and, of course, all the people who buy clothes, hats, bags, and all kinds of other stuff branded with a commercial message. As Jean Kilbourne (feminist media critic) said, most of the people who tell her they “don’t see ads” are wearing Gap t-shirts.

  6. Influence the influencers and forget about everyone else. It’s the same for linkbait, you don’t really need to reach thousands of readers, only those who are primed to link.

  7. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Dustin – The interesting thing is that, of that massive 200+ budget, less and less is being spent on traditional branding-driven interruption and more on relevance-driven advertising and high-value content creation.

    In fact, the shotgun media have been struggling for years as they lose ground to far more targeted and effective modalities, some that are pure ad-driven, but others that are content-driven.

    So, now a sizable chunk of traditional ad-spend is going into trying to create content with embedded values/brands that have enough value to go viral and be distributed through social media. And, less and less money is being spent on shotgun advertising and branding.

    And, a big part of the reason is that, over the last 30 years, the number of ads we see has risen from 2,000 a day to 5,000, literally mandating that we block more of them.

    And, as for the gap clothing, branding is one thing, but don’t discount the value of convenience, too. If you’ve got a store every other block that sells bland essentials, people are buying convenience as much as product.

    Plus, don’t know if you’ve following the GAP over the last 5 years, but their product has become so non-differentiated, they are in a heap of trouble with giant sales declines year over year…regardless of the massive amount of money they spend on branding.

    Just my humble thoughts…

  8. Klaus says:

    @Jonathan – you are probably right that more and more advertising spending is going into new forms of advertising, trying to create viral effects.
    However, I also see Dustin’s point: what percentage is non-traditional advertising? I do not have up-to-date numbers, but my rough guess is well below 5%.
    The interesting question for me is now: Is there a danger for “high-value” content creation to get “tuned out” similar to traditional advertising? If >50% of advertsing spending is going into these innovative forms? How much “high-value” content can you consume on a given day?
    Take your blog: (which I would consider also a good example for “high-value” advertsing, in this case for your own services). If there would be -say- twenty highly sponsored blogs with similar topics, with a couple of paid ghost-writers (think: late-night shows), competition for readers would be even harder. And most of these blogs would be just ignored, another word for “tuned-out”.
    And I guess it will be as difficult as with traditional advertising to decide upfront which “high-value” content will trigger the purchase decision…

  9. What you’re saying here, unless I’m horribly off target, is that the oldest form of advertising – word of mouth – is still the best.

    This implies, of course, that you have a quality product that people will rave about. Unfortunately, that’s becoming less and less common, I fear.

    Great post. Good form!

  10. Shama Hyder says:

    Hi Jonathan! = )

    I think its all about cultivating a few fans. You can’t reach the masses-no matter how BIG you are. And by “reach”-I mean have an impact on them.

    You have to choose your fans wisely and then offer them the world.

    Simple, eh? = )

  11. You are SO not off base! As a younger person I think that I have been more exposed to technology from a younger age than older people. So I don’t see the ‘on-page’ advertisments anymore. That’s why the look-at-this-ad-while-your-article/webpage-is-loading is the next wave. Unfortunately for them, I just flip over to the next tab in my Internet Explorer and come back to that after I have read through something else.

    I don’t wait for ANYTHING to download.

  12. Stacy says:

    Thought-provoking article.

    I just started a business myself, and have been brain-storming about how to market it.

    I know I tune most everything out–in fact, I dumped tv from my household in 2000 and don’t miss it.

    I watched that spaghetti vid sometime back and blogged about it myself in myspace.
    “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” LOL

  13. Nez says:

    I totally ignore maybe 90% of the ads. One or two may be interesting from a cool-factor-point-of-view, but those are certainly rarities in the web’s constant barrage.

    I don’t watch too much TV, but do think the Apple ads are great FOR branding.

    I switched to the Mac not because of the ads, but because of their switch to Intel chips (another branding-centric company), and the fact that now I can run the one or two Windows program on my Mac when I need to.

    In the end, just as we always hear that content is king (or queen) for blogging, having a product that works (like the Mac) is what will get me to spend my money.

    Similarly, I try to go to the local neighborhood hardware store when possible instead of the Home Depot or Lowe’s for the knowledgeable staff I am more certain to find there. Show them the worn-out washer and they find it for you. At the big box stores, just trying to find a “sales associate” is a chore in itself.

  14. Tim Brownson says:

    Another excellent and thought provoking article Jonathan.

    There’s a thing in NLP called convincer stategies. It seeks to explain why some people buy on seeing one ad (not necessarily confined to advertising I hasten to add), some need to see it many times and some over and over again. Marketers seem to think that by hitting the latter group they hit all 3. OTOH, I happen to believe that there are reverse convincer strategies whereas people get tipped the opposite way by relentless overload of one product or service.

    Of course we all delete stuff at a conscious level because the human mind can only deal with 7 + or – 2 pieces of information at any one point in time, but that doesn’t mean our unconscious hasn’t been exposed to it because often it has and that is where the real power lies, with the hard dtive not the RAM.

    Nobody likes to think they are influenced by advertising, but we all are. The type of advertising is changing but it’s still advertising when all said and done.