Nobody Buys Products From Facebook Ads! (Um, Who Cares?)

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Yesterday, this news was treated as a tragedy for Facebook:

Four out of five Facebook users have never bought a product or service as a result of advertising or comments on the social network site, a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows.

I have a hard time imagining a statistic of less consequence, for two reasons. First, Facebook's ad presence is minimal. They're only just opened up their commercial spigot. Second, asking people to name the last time they bought something because of a specific commercial misunderstands what commercials are for and why people buy things.

Let's talk about toothpaste. Is all toothpaste the same, by taste and effectiveness? Probably. I don't really know. I'm guessing there has been a commoditization of toothpaste quality, which explains why it's important for advertisers to get the message out that their particular brand is mintier, fresher, better. But when I go to CVS, I often find myself buying Colgate Total. Sometimes Crest. Almost never anything else. If you asked me to describe the last marketing image I've seen from Colgate or Crest, a cartoon image of teeth comes to mind, but I'm not really sure. So why do I buy Colgate and Crest exclusively? There are probably a lot of reasons, including their placement on the rack and the attractive and glittery color schemes of the boxes that make me all giddy about the glistening future of my teeth. But underlying all that is familiarity. I know these brands. And with familiarity comes my attention and my trust. I trust the Colgate brand. I will put Crest on my teeth. And without their considerable ad campaigns, I might not.

"Successful advertising rarely succeeds through argument or calls to action," marketing exec Nigel Hollis wrote for us. "Instead, it creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behavior over time to encourage us to buy something at a later date. The best advertisements are ingenious at leaving impressions."

We don't like thinking that advertisements work on us by anything like hypnosis. We're autonomous beings, dammit! But we're also impressionable, and our decision-making brains, constantly seeking information and conclusions, are more open to branding campaigns than we'd like to admit. There is lots of evidence that online ads work better than we realize -- and maybe even better than print. But you won't find it by asking people to list ads that motivated them.

Facebook's future is a mystery. But the fact that 80% of us don't remember the last time a social media ad directly motivated a purchase doesn't give us many new clues.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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