There’s No Such Thing As A Free Ad

"Publicity and advertising have overlapping, but different, purposes."

By David P. Kowal

To a public relations professional, few things are as annoying as seeing publicity referred to as “free advertising.”

It is especially annoying, though, when fellow public-relations practitioners refer to publicity as “free advertising.” That has happened at least twice in recent months.

Publicity is not free advertising. Just as advertising is not publicity that someone has paid for. Publicity and advertising have overlapping, but different, purposes. Both advertising and publicity can raise awareness about a company and its products or services. Both can enhance the image of the company. Used properly, they should complement each other. When properly integrated into a marketing communications strategy, they both can play an important role in the sales process.

Unlike retail advertising, publicity rarely is directly responsible for producing sales. Advertise a product at a sale price and it sells. Publicity for certain products can create demand, making the job of advertising much easier.

Advertising typically relies on repetition to make an impact. A one-time ad is generally a waste of money. It may take many months of advertising to produce results. The advertiser, having paid for the space, has complete control over the content and appearance of the ad. The publisher may refuse to run the ad, as has happened with cigarette advertising and some political ads, but that almost never happens.

Publicity, conversely, usually makes a one-time appearance. It must be newsworthy if it is to be published. Generally, an editor must approve of its content and is likely to make some changes. If it does not fit in its entirety, it will be cut.

Virtually any product or service can be advertised, but not everything is well suited for ongoing publicity. Products or services can be publicized only if there is something newsworthy about them – although a creative practitioner can often create something newsworthy.

The purchaser of ad space has control over the contents of the ad, but companies cannot control the contents of a news article or broadcast report. Regardless, publicity has a tremendous advantage over advertising. Readers purchase newspapers and magazines, or visit Web sites for their editorial content, not for their ads. They listen to and watch news shows for their content, not their commercials. They are more likely to pay attention to publicity than they are to advertising.

Furthermore, publicity has greater credibility. Everyone knows the ad was created by a company to sell a product. An ad that says Kowal Communications is the best marketing communications agency in Massachusetts will not necessarily be believed by readers. If a news article, however, says Kowal Communications is the best marketing communications agency in Massachusetts, it will be believable. Unless, of course, the article is written by the president of the company.

David P. Kowal, APR is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.