Love or money?

Some advertisers make a really stupid choice.

We are unaware of any proven correlation between a commercial's likeability and its persuasive effectiveness. Despite that, some advertisers obsess over commercials' "most liked" scores.

Sometimes to the exclusion of metrics of sales success or bottom-line impact.

A recent example was Career Builder's decision to put their account into review because their commercials didn't make it into the top 10 in USA Today's "most liked" rankings of Super Bowl spots. Even though their agency, Cramer-Krasselt, helped rocket the Career Builder past Monster to dominance in the job board category.

Cramer-Krasselt had the self-respect to resign the account as soon as the review was announced. The marketing director's decision to hold a review just because one set of commercials didn't win a popularity contest – although the agency's work propelled his brand to the top of its industry – has been called unsophisticated, un-businesslike and unprofessional. That's putting it nicely. It may have been the most bone-headed marketing decision of the year.

Then again, maybe not. Consider what happened at Wal-Mart.

GSD&M's "Smiley Face" campaign helped take Wal-Mart from $11 billion to $312 billion in revenues. But the retailer – and a new CMO – thought they needed an edgier campaign. After a disastrous process that saw DraftFCB hired and fired (and the CMO ousted acrimoniously), GSD&M was invited to join in a new pitch for the Wal-Mart business, an account for which they had done monumentally effective work. Once again, self-respect prompted the agency to bow out.

What were these clients thinking? Couldn't anyone in their marketing departments read a sales report? Or a financial statement? Why did it matter if audiences only ranked the Career Builder spots as 16th most likeable if the campaign worked so well? What difference could it possibly make that advertising esthetes thought "Smiley" was hokey, as long as the campaign kept the Wal-Mart sales juggernaught rolling?

Some famous likeable commercials weren't effective. Wells Rich Greene's classic 1960s Alka-Seltzer campaign including the "Spicy Meatball" commercial, the George Raft "Prison" spot and the Peter Boyle "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" spot) was a tour de force of scriptwriting, directing and acting. The spots became instant audience favorites. And they sold less Alka-Seltzer than the corny old "Speedy Alka-Seltzer" campaign they replaced.

More recently, Chevrolet's truck sales have fallen "Like a Rock." despite beautiful, emotionally powerful spots based on the Bob Seger song, Some months in 2006 and 2007 have had declines of more than 20%.

This isn't to say that likeable commercials can't be effective. Many are. Because likeability is one of many possible ways to achieve impact and awareness, which are the necessary first steps in the persuasion process.

Budweiser's commercials dominated the USA Today "most liked" rankings with the #1 spot and seven of the top ten. And they helped take the brewer to over 50% of the U.S. beer market.

But some spots that audiences detest also work.

A lot of political advertising fall into that detested-but-effective category. Survey after survey finds that audiences dislike negative political commercials, like the "Swift Boat Veterans" spot attacking John Kerry in 2004. And election after election shows that character assassination and mudslinging work very well on election day. "Swift Boat Veterans" didn't deter 62,040,610 people from voting for George W. Bush.

Negative political ads have a long history. In 1884 Republicans attacked Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland for fathering an illegitimate son with chants of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" That one didn't work, but the 1964 "Countdown" commercial used to frighten voters with the specter of a nuclear war if Barry Goldwater won the presidency did. It was an important factor in Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory.

Spots that audiences dislike can also work for product and service advertisers. The Ted Bates Anacin commercials of the 1950s and 1960s were among the most reviled ever created by a major agency. Angry situations and animated heads filled with hammers and lightning bolts were distasteful even at the dawn of the television era. And they tripled Anacin's sales.

Think that hate-the-commercial-but-buy-the-product dichotomy is ancient history? Just last month delayed-viewing Nielsen ratings showed that some of the spots least likely to be skipped as people fast forward through commercial pods are the hard-sell direct marketing spots. You know the ones: "A hundred favorite Lithuanian love songs for $22.95 plus shipping and handling." Or Lindsay Wagner shilling adjustable-firmness beds (does she really look rested to you?).

And more to the point, people buy from those spots.

Go Daddy's commercial – the most disliked spot of all on the 2007 Super Bowl – delivered a 55% sales increase.

The phenomenon of hated ads getting results isn't limited to television. The third most hated Web advertising technique – ads that trick users into clicking on them by masquerading as dialog boxes – is also one of the most effective. Fake dialog boxes get significantly more clicks than banner ads. In fact eye-tracking camera studies have found that any web ad that mimics content gets more fixations – in which the viewer's eyes pause on them – than ads that look like ads. (The studies reinforce lessons learned in studying magazine advertising effectiveness with eye-tracking cameras decades ago. At that time it was observed that ads which looked like editorial content got substantially higher readership than most ordinary ads in classic ad formats.)

This posting certainly isn't a justification for obnoxious advertising. We agree with David Ogilvy's observation that our messages are guests in peoples' homes, and we should be courteous. Well, mostly.

Instead, this is a call to measure – and make decisions based upon – what matters: results. Our agency's central value – actually our obsession – is creating marketing communications programs that deliver a quantifiable return on our clients' investments.