After a billion dollars in presidential television ad spending alone, by 9 to 1 Americans felt strongly that campaign commercials were “not at all important” to the outcome of last November’s elections according to a Pew Research survey.
Even the ratio of those who were equivocal deemed that this element of marketing had little effect on the outcome.
In the most intense and sustained test yet of advertising’s effectiveness, the two Presidential candidates alone spent $696 million in advertising with hundreds of millions more spent by the two parties, various political action committees and a slew of “dark money” groups.
Even before this unprecedented barrage, experts estimate that the average American is now inundated with an average 10,000 ads each day. In response, nearly everyone has tuned out, so why does anyone still advertise?
It may be due to equal parts inertia and ignorance I suppose or in the case of politics, fear of losing and the power of the advertising-industrial complex. Marketing today is hard work but too often advertising still appeals to novices easily drawn to “shiny objects” or self-aggrandizement.
It also draws “bottom-feeders” who prey on the unsuspecting and contribute to advertising practitioners being rated among the three least trusted professions.
There is still a role for advertising in thoughtful marketing plans but it is severely marginalized by the fact that people have simply tuned out. Studies show that even during the upcoming Super Bowl, ads will turn off three people for every one for which they are appealing.
But for some it may be that use of this inferior element of marketing continues because with the exception of outdoor billboards and other forms of advertising out-of-home, advertising often subsidizes the availability of news, sports and entertainment, although there is evidence that even that business model is phasing out.
On a recent road trip, I noticed that I-95, the front-door to Raleigh, North Carolina, is cluttered with huge roadside billboards, ruining the first impression of North Carolina’s capital city even though citizens there have made a valiant attempt to sequester billboards in commercial zones.
Further south, I-95 is nearly billboard-free and heavily forested where travelers pass by Fayetteville, North Carolina. Of course, if they exit, they will be inundated with billboards.
In some ways, we North Carolinians are justified in feeling superior to South Carolina. However, with the exception of where it passes through or near cities and towns or the infamous South of the Border, that state seems much more careful to keep I-95 clear of blight and tree-lined including long stretches of forested medians.
In the fall of 1969, four years to the month after the signing of the national Highway Beautification Act which introduced much less intrusive and far more effective logo signs at highway exits as an alternative to help guide travelers to roadside services for gas, food and lodging, the first Cracker Barrel country story and restaurant opened in Lebanon, Tennessee, about 30 or 40 miles east of Nashville as I-40 makes it way west from Knoxville.
In the tradition of old country stores, which were the convenience stores of their day, Cracker Barrels even had gas pumps until the mid to late 1970s. They also earned a reputation for discrimination against gays and blacks.
During the 24 years I’ve lived in Durham, North Carolina, the Cracker Barrel chain has grown from 50 or 60 restaurants to 620 in 42 states including one in my native state of Idaho. The chain has also worked hard to shed the discrimination of its roots, climbing from last place on the Corporate Equality Index to a rating of 55 out of 100 in 2011.
Cracker Barrel, which at the average location serves 6,700 people each week, hasn’t done so well on any such index of roadside desecration. It is one of the businesses keeping the outdoor billboard industry on life-support, using more than 1,500 prior to the recession and ranking 11th in revenue generated for billboard companies nationwide.
Even though the company tries to be socially responsible including concern for animal welfare, it has been slow to migrate from billboards that blight roadsides and the scenic character of the communities in which they are located to the far more effective logo signs preceding highway exits. But I see evidence as I travel that the company may be slowly catching on.
A periodic survey of advertising mediums documents that only 0.2% of Americans see outdoor billboards as influential for purchase decisions and the percentage in much of Cracker Barrel’s target audience is 0.0%. Still, it may be difficult for its now younger and more progressive management to wean the organization.
Research in North Carolina suggests that outdoor billboards have an 8 to 1 turn-off to turn-on ratio. That means for ever person to which the messages appeal, they turn off eight others. Not a good number if you’re using advertising to appeal. Unfortunately, far too many marketers still focus only on gross vs. net appeal, let along net-negative.
My favorite meal has always been breakfast although other than weekends, it is the meal I have always been most likely to skip in adulthood. Durham, NC, where I live, is fortunate to have a wide variety of indigenous and chain restaurants from which to choose for that meal.
For those who like country or comfort food, Cracker Barrel off I-85 is on that list, although breakfast is the meal served to only 1 out of 4 of its patrons company-wide. It generates about $2 billion in restaurant revenue and more than $500 million in retail store revenue annually.
To its credit, the company is committed to community relations in its 620 locations but unfortunately that commitment does not yet include reducing visual blight and preserving scenic character. I suspect it is only a matter of time before it does. It is just good business and good marketing.