The Hidden Cost of Cheap Advertising


Nearly every morning, on my way to work, I drive past a guy holding a sign that reads “Bagels.” Depending on his mood, the sign guy will intermittently give a wave and point toward the nearest shopping center where, presumably, there is a bagel establishment, and hand out a water bottles custom label. While I’ve seen this guy a dozen times or more, today was the first day that I gave him any real thought. Not because I wanted a bagel. Or because I didn’t want a bagel. In fact, it was this indifference that intrigued me. Like negative space in painting, or a well-timed musical pause, inertia, I realized, could be the source of all power, at least where advertising is concerned.

As consumers, we are bombarded with a constant stream of marketing offers that require split second decisions – to listen or to ignore, to believe or to question, to buy or not buy…Our brains have adapted to this influx of information with extreme efficiency. While the conscious mind is busy performing important functions like driving or text messaging, the subconscious is multi-tasking, turning observations into judgments and filing them away for later use. Later came for me today when I noticed the bagel guy and realized that part of me had already been through the entire process, which explains why I suddenly found the bagel guy so annoying.

To begin with, Bagel Dude was so poorly positioned that by the time drivers saw the opportunity for bagels, it was too late to turn into the only entrance to the shopping center. Also, it was obvious that little time or attention was devoted to producing the cardboard square upon which “bagels” was barely legible. I can only hope that the artist in question was using his non-dominant hand, perhaps from having injured his good hand in an unfortunate skateboarding accident.

Even the lamest marketing efforts have a purpose. The measure of action related to this purpose is the conversion, also known as the inertia fighter. (I made that one up.) The goals for conversion in advertising can vary depending upon the campaign. Conversion for a print ad might be a phone call. A banner ad might measure conversion in mouse clicks. Other ads measure conversion through web traffic or email inquiries.

The bagel shop owners had unrealistically high ambitions for conversion with their little road sign. Somehow this tacky one-word message was supposed to get the attention of drivers on their way to work, trigger an emotional response powerful enough to warrant a detour in heavy traffic, along with the risk of being late to work, and an unplanned expense to an unfamiliar store. What a clever idea, they must have thought. Let the other stores spend thousands of dollars on advertising while we make bank with a piece of trash and a marker.

Not only did the sign campaign fail in its mission to divert rush hour traffic to the bagel shop’s door, it generated conversion of the wrong kind, causing thousands of morning commuters to cross-associate tasty bagels with not-so-tasty cardboard and possibly despair.

The bagel shop’s epic sign FAIL points to a larger problem that likely permeates the entire operation. Businesses such as the bagel shop suffer from a form of business narcissism, which renders them incapable of identifying or connecting with the customers they claim to serve. Sadly, there is no cure for B.N. and in most cases it’s fatal.

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