Change Your Mind? Not With Advertising.

November 11, 2008 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Presidential elections remind me that advertising isn’t very effective at changing minds. In fact, I wouldn’t be the first to argue that advertising can’t change minds at all.

That may sound positively blasphemous coming from an advertising executive. But take this election, for example, and the many millions spent by each candidate on all forms of advertising. Who were they targeting? Neither candidate was targeting audiences who had their minds made up. Why would Obama spend resources and energy trying to convince the Religious Right to switch sides? And, for that matter, why would McCain waste his time or money begging for votes among apologists for Louis Farrakhan. Either move would be ill-advised at best.

People who already have their minds made up simply aren’t reasonable targets for persuasion to a contrary position. Minds are hard things to change. In a trivial sense, of course, our minds change all the time. What to wear, which e-mail to open first, whether or not to answer the phone, and so forth. But significant changes occur far less frequently and are not the likely byproducts of advertising messages.

That’s why both presidential campaigns focused their time, energy, and financial resources on the “undecided” voters. It was a population that by some estimates made up nine percent of all registered voters just a week before Election Day. Indeed, it was the population where the election battle was won and lost. In so-called “battleground states” where neither candidate had overwhelming support, the more malleable undecided audience was the key to victory.

And so it is with advertisers of products and services. When I worked on the Ford Trucks account in my early career we didn’t focus our time and energy on Chevrolet orDodge loyalists as a strategy for growing market share. Loyal customers for the opposition make poor conversion targets. Instead, the goal was first to support our current customer base and reinforce their choice, and then to target those customers with a higher than average propensity to switch to Ford. Some of those people did drive Chevy and Dodge trucks. But they weren’t loyal to those brands. We relied on research to tell who was loyal and who was not, what they drove, and what kind of messaging they would find most persuasive.

The first rule of persuasion is, you must have a willing ear. Tapping into an audience of ambivalent, disaffected, and even disenchanted customer prospects is the root of all influence where advertising is concerned. Smart marketers know this, and it’s the key reason why loyalty and customer rewards programs have become such an important defensive marketing tool. Let’s face it, I may be unhappy with my last flight onAmerican Airlines but it’s my point balance that keeps me coming back. For me and thousands of customers like me the Frequent Flyer program is the tie-breaker. It’s what makes it impossible for competitive airline advertising to change my mind about which airline I’ll fly on my next business trip.

And so it was with the most recent race for the highest office in the land. It was the ambivalent, the disaffected, and the disenchanted who tipped the scales in Obama’s favor. He didn’t set out to change minds. He simply set out to make an impact on those who were open to suggestion. It’s a text book lesson in audience selection for marketers.


Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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