Critics of traditional media channels argue that they are wasteful and expensive. But these critiques are fundamentally flawed  rather than points of weakness they are, in fact, points of strength, argues Alex Murrell, Strategy Director at Epoch.

We live in the era of efficiency.

Instead of focussing on making our work bigger, we focus on making it work harder. Instead of maximising our impact, we minimise our waste. A century ago, John Wanamaker said:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” 

Today, marketing strives to eradicate Wanamaker’s waste. According to Ebiquity this manifests in three different ways:

 “Advertisers perceive paid social media and online video to deliver ROI because they are relatively cheap, can reach defined audiences and provide a measurable response.”

Traditional media channels are thought to be an inconceivable indulgence. They are mass. They are ignored. And they are expensive. I believe, however, that these critiques are fundamentally flawed. This article argues that rather than points of weakness they are, in fact, points of strength.

Let’s dive in.

Error 01: Mass media is wasteful because it is untargeted

When you communicate using mass media you reach a large number of those who are in your target market. But you also reach a large number of those who are not.

Luxury car adverts, for example, reach those who are too young or too old to drive, those who don’t have a driver’s license and those whose license has been removed. But considering this ‘waste’ ignores one of a brand’s most foundational roles. Brands not only provide functional and emotional benefits, but self-expressive ones.

According to David Aaker:

“‘We are what we have’ is perhaps the most basic and powerful fact of consumer behaviour. (…) Brands and products can become symbols of a person’s self-concept. A brand can thus provide a self-expressive benefit by providing a way for a person to communicate his or her self-image.”

By driving an expensive car, the owner communicates their financial status and sense of style. For a potential audience to buy the brand, they have to know that a much wider audience aspires to do the same. Or as Jeremy Bullmore put it:

“If a luxury car only ever advertised to people in the market for a luxury car in the next 6 months then soon, nobody would be in the market for that car, as you mainly buy one to be the envy of the people who can’t afford it.”

Through this lens reaching a large audience is not wasteful but valuable. But it doesn’t stop there.

Broadcast communications not only reach a large audience, they reach that audience publicly. Not only do many people see your advert, but they see many others see your advert as well. Kevin Simler calls this “Cultural Imprinting”:

“For an ad to work by cultural imprinting, it's not enough for it to be seen by a single person, or even by many people individually. It has to be broadcast publicly, in front of a large audience. I have to see the ad, but I also have to know (or suspect) that most of my friends have seen the ad too."

Simler explains that traditional, inefficient channels seem most effective at achieving cultural imprinting. They reach a large audience who know that a large audience is been reached.

In short. mass media reaches a large audience, imprinting brands on culture and imbuing them with self-expressive benefits.

Error 02: Mass media is wasteful because it is ignored

In a presentation titled Not all Attention is Equal, Professor Karen Nelson-Field showed that video ads on Instagram receive active attention for 89% of their duration, whilst ads on live, linear TV receive it for just 35%.

Surely low-attention channels are wasteful? A group of researchers, however, argue the opposite. Paul Feldwick:

“Walter Dill Scott (…) knew that advertising can influence people's attitudes to brands without them being able to consciously recall seeing the advertising itself. (…) One young lady asserted that she had never looked at any of the cards in the streetcars in which she had been riding for years. When questioned further, it appeared that she knew by heart every advertisement appearing on the line and the goods advertised won her highest esteem.” 

60 years later, Leon Festinger and Nathan Maccoby tested how people process messages during periods of distraction. A summary of the experiment appears in Richard Shotton’s ‘The Choice Factory’:

“Academics at Stanford University, recruited members of college fraternities. They played those students an audio argument about why fraternities were morally wrong. The recording was played in two different scenarios: students either heard it on its own or they watched a silent film at the same time. After the students had heard the recording, the Stanford psychologists questioned them as to how far their views had shifted. Those who had heard the argument at the same time as the silent film were more likely to have changed their opinion."

Participants in the high-attention group were able to generate counter-arguments, whilst the distracted group were unable to raise such cognitive defences.

But can low-attention really be high-value? Dr. Robert Heath provides perhaps the deepest analysis of how attention impacts advertising effectiveness. Heath suggests that ads that receive active attention are deeply analysed and deprioritised to short-term memory. On the other hand, ads that receive passive attention are shallowly analysed and stored in long-term memory. From his book, ‘Seducing the Subconscious’:

“Most successful advertising campaigns in the world are not those we love or those we hate, or those with messages that are new or interesting. They are those (…) that are able to effortlessly slip things under our radar and influence our behaviour without us ever really knowing that they have done so. And the way in which these apparently inoffensive ad campaigns work is by “seducing” our subconscious.” 

Brand building advertising, it seems, works by consistently exposing an inattentive audience to stimuli that bypasses an audience’s defences and lodges itself in the consumer’s subconscious. 

Error 03: Mass media is wasteful because it is expensive

According to Digiday, for the cost of a 30 second Super Bowl spot, you could buy 2.5 billion impressions on Snapchat, 1.7 billion on Instagram or 625 million on LinkedIn. The message is clear. Super Bowl ads are inordinately expensive compared to their contemporary counterparts.

The truth, however, is not quite so simple. To understand why we must look back to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin believed small mutations made some animals more suited to their environment and thus more likely to survive. Over time, species would evolve, converging towards an optimal set of natural abilities.

But one thing puzzled Darwin. Why did some animals evolve with attributes that seemed to hinder their survival? In a letter to a friend, Darwin admitted that the sight of a peacock’s tail made him physically sick. Those tail feathers, after all, seemed to refute his theory.

Darwin soon realised that evolution relied not just on which animals survived, but also on those which reproduced. Darwin deduced that the traits he had perceived to be impediments to survival, were actually advantages to reproduction. Those who prospered despite their physical encumbrances, must be more attractive mates.

In 2004 Tim Ambler published a paper drawing a direct connection between the way animals and brands signal strength. Both, he argued, communicated through conspicuous waste:

“Just as female peacocks are drawn to meet with the largest, most spectacular tail feathers because the display signals superior biological fitness, consumers are attracted to brands that invest in lavish displays like Super Bowl commercials because such extravagance signals a high-quality, successful brand.”

Animals signal strength through unnecessary adornment. Brands signal strength through unnecessary spend. The cost of the Super Bowl commercial communicates in a way that 1.7 billion Facebook impressions never could.

To test this theory, Thinkbox asked over 3,500 people if they perceived brands to be “high quality”, “financially strong” and “confident” when seeing them advertised on different media. TV scored 43%, 50% and 58% respectively, whilst social scored just 19%, 21% and 40%. The inefficient channels outperformed the efficient.


Broadcast communications cannot target specific segments. But they can imprint brands on culture. Mass media cannot command the same levels of attention as social media. But it can lodge a brand in the long-term memory. Traditional channels cannot compete on cost. But they can use expensive media to signal their strength, security and stability.

So let’s stop criticising broadcast advertising for being inefficient. Let’s stop worrying about it being wasteful. Over a century of research suggests that the very things that make it less efficient are the very things that make it more effective.

Today the challenge marketers and media agencies face is a momentous one. How do we make the case for traditional media in an era of efficiency? How can we benefit from inefficient media when live, linear TV is in decline? How do we leverage waste when more and more are measuring the carbon cost of their media?

These are significant questions. Because as Tim Ambler once said:

“The waste in advertising is the part that works.”