The front page of the business section of yesterday’s New York Times carried a story about the $213 million dollar first quarter loss generated by United Continental Holdings, the parent of United and Continental Airlines.

If you unfold the paper to see that the back page of that section, you will see, printed inches from this story on the same side of the same piece of newsprint, a full-page ad for United Airlines.

The front page of the first section of the same paper carries a story about how the recession has caused sales of eco-friendly consumer products to plummet, claiming that American consumers’ allegiance to green is fickle, at best.

If you unfold the paper to see the back page of the front section, you will see, printed inches from this story, a full-page ad for Macy’s eco-friendly cosmetics.

Looking at those two pages unfolded in front of me, with harsh news stories set next to pretty ads that cost United and Macy’s tens of thousands of dollars, reinforces how unreal advertising is when set next to the actual world we live in.

Communicating a message to your customers is a very tough challenge in times of message overload and a skeptical public.  You may need to advertise, but avoid the pitfall I see companies fall into all the time: The mistaken belief that the work is done as soon as the ad copy is written.  Just because you say something, you can’t assume that your customers will believe it. They don’t read your messages in a vacuum, with their full, committed attention. They weigh your boasts and promises against everything else they see in their crowded field of vision.

As I was writing this post I browsed further into the same edition of the New York Times.  I saw an article on page 3 of the business section that describes how revenue at the New York Times was down 58% in the first quarter, due largely to the drop in advertising revenue. Next to this article was a review of Morgan Spurlock’s new movie, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opened last night in a few cities.  (Not the one I’m in now)  The movie, as many of you already know, is a movie about advertising product placement funded totally by advertising product placement.  Based on the trailer, which I’ve seen, it looks like the movie will point to the absurdity of having your business’s success depend on “capturing eyeballs,” “cutting through the clutter” and “getting our name out there.”

I remember hearing that an educated person in Elizabethan England read an amount of material in his or her life equivalent to that in a daily edition of the New York Times.  If that person had read yesterday’s Times he would have been able to learn a great deal about the truth of advertising’s waning power in our times.

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