Does advertising work? Ask Joe Izuzu

The biggest issue facing journalism today is simple: How will we get people to pay for content? Particularly quality content that requires things like “reporting” and “research”?

“Advertising” would be the easy answer. We can target ads in much more refined ways than we could in print or broadcast. On this Guardian story about declining ad revenue, I have ads for … dealing with Type 2 diabetes? Do they know something I don’t?

One quirk of online advertising is that it’s measurable — or so we think. In the early days, everything we heard was about “click-throughs.” If a reader didn’t click an ad, conventional wisdom said, it was useless. I always tried the counterargument that companies shell out tons of money to slap logos on race cars, and I’ve never seen anyone “click through” a NASCAR hood to get more info on Tide.

So we may find that online advertising doesn’t give you a big bang for your buck. But does any form of advertising do so? (With the exception of ads that we intentionally seek out, like the Sunday newspaper inserts with coupons that pay for your newspaper purchase many times over.)

Case in point: We all remember Joe Isuzu, the smarmy liar at the center of Isuzu’s clever ads. But as this Mental Floss story points out, people loved the character but often didn’t get around to buying the car:

Isuzu’s popularity had a troubling consequence. After the 1986 spurt in sales, the company sold roughly the same amount of vehicles in the first half of 1987. (Actually, 50 fewer.) Both Isuzu and advertising industry experts expressed concern that Isuzu was such an entertaining persona that people were actually paying more attention to him and less attention to the product he was selling—the car.

So have we been fooling ourselves for decades into thinking clever ads will pay off? If so, how will we pay for … anything? Journalism? Sports?

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