Advertising and public relations (PR) are multibillion dollar industries employing some of the world’s most creative and intelligent fashion communicators. As frameworks through which the all-encompassing promotional cacophony is tuned, orchestrated, and amplified, their arresting, beautiful, often outrageous or shocking work competes fiercely for mindshare in an atomized environment where distraction is only ever a screen tap away.
After explaining what advertising and public relations are, how they differ, and what they do, this chapter outlines how these deeply intersecting promotional disciplines combine in integrated campaigns to exploit the proliferation of digital channels that have transformed consumer communications during the Internet era. Q&As with practitioners offer insights into these vital segments of the industry in what some have called the “post-advertising era.”
At its most prosaic, advertising is promotional communication that uses paid-for media to attract a broad cross section of the advertiser’s target audience, either for a specific product-related purpose (e.g., a launch), or to maintain or adjust brand image.
Advertisements are usually identifiable as such, through placement in public and private spaces set aside for their use. Whereas advertising media were historically limited to newspapers, magazines, radio, cinema, TV, and outdoor posters, today’s advertisers must add to these options a plethora of web-based and mobile media, many of which offer consumers the opportunity to “opt out” of receiving advertising messages.
In her seminal 1978 work Decoding Advertisements, scholar Judith Williamson writes: “It is the first function of an advertisement to create a differentiation between one particular product and others in the same category,” but this is not the whole story. As Iain MacRury (2009: 23) notes, advertising today is “a genre, an everyday feature and format across contemporary media.” Thus, advertising is both a commercial activity, which aims to help sell products, and a way of constructing meaning within contemporary society.
In the world of fashion promotion, PR is typically a part of marketing used to optimize consumers’ positivity towards brands and products. Although PR activity often results in the production of tangible, promotional outputs (such as media coverage), its principal aim is to create a constructive conversation about brands, including recommendations from influential individuals whose blessing convinces potential customers to bring the approved brands into their lives.
Historically, advertising and PR were understood as separate practices. Advertising was easily identifiable through its formula of slogans and visuals, clearly demarcated ad breaks (on TV and radio), physical placement within public spaces or print media, and distinctive production values that helped it stand out from editorial content. The outcomes of PR activity were harder to spot: a brand mention in a news story or a reference to a product in a magazine feature about essential winter wardrobe items might have been coincidental, or the result of a PR practitioner’s communications with editors. But because PR is concerned with so much more than this type of media relations, it is a lot easier to identify what PR does, than what it actually is.
In a 1693 English trade manual, author John Houghton recommends a wig-maker “that pretends to make perukes [wigs] extraordinarily fashionable.” In 1879, the New York Times claims this as one of the first examples of printed fashion advertising. Today, it is more recognizable as an editorial mention generated through media relations, where a journalist writes about a brand following information received from a PR practitioner. Much like ourselves, readers of the 1693 publication would not have known if the wig-maker had paid to have his service advertised, or simply been the fortunate recipient of an influential third party’s glowing praise.
Proponents of PR would argue that third-party recommendations—such as positive newspaper reviews of a designer’s collection, or Instagram selfies showing celebrities sporting their latest accessories—are a more powerful means of promotion than traditional advertisements. This, they might argue, is because we are more likely to believe that a product is desirable if we are told it is so by a trusted or liked individual or publication, than if we are delivered a similar message by the product’s manufacturer.
In fact, this distinction is misleading. In the contemporary promotional realm, advertising and PR almost universally work hand in hand, with the skills of their respective practitioners combining to create more compelling communications than either could produce in isolation. “Integrated” is a relatively new term used to describe this approach, but advertising and PR have been working together for many decades. For example, in 1953, a promotional campaign for the British menswear brand, Aertex, combined display advertising in more than 800 local newspapers with core PR activities: a mannequin parade in London’s Savoy Hotel and a window display competition for retailers (Jobling, 2014: 39).
Providing information about products and/or personalities with the aim of generating targeted media coverage, often using press releases or more extensive media kits compiled specifically for the purpose.
Activities (such as catwalk shows, sponsored concerts, and sporting events) undertaken either as part of an ongoing or seasonal program of promotional activity, or as one-off “stunts” tied to other PR activities in order to boost brand image. (Events are covered in more detail in Chapter 7).
Communications activity undertaken in order to help ameliorate threats to brand image. Such threats may arise from diverse sources. Product malfunction; inappropriate or offensive remarks from key brand personnel; manufacturing problems; or culturally insensitive collections may all precipitate crises for fashion brands. Crises generally arise from unexpected sources: in 2011, French luxury brand Lacoste allegedly asked Norwegian authorities to prevent mass murderer Anders Breivik from wearing its products during trial proceedings in an attempt to reduce harm to the brand’s reputation.
Advertising takes many forms and is used for a variety of subtly different purposes. In addition, advertising and PR use different forms of media in different ways, defined within the contemporary promotional environment as “paid,” “owned,” and “earned” media. The following tables describe the different purposes of advertising and the different media types.
The Main Types and Uses of Advertising
In 2009, the research company Forrester defined a simple set of terms designed to help marketers segment their media options in an increasingly fragmented media environment. They classified all existing types of media as either paid (or bought), owned or earned, providing a useful table of the terms’ meanings and examples of the role, plus the benefits and challenges of each media type. It is worth noting the extent to which owned and paid media are considered to be catalysts to generate earned media. Today’s marketers also now add social media to the mix, which typically crosses over into all the other categories.
Ever since the first press releases were sent to journalists in the twentieth century, these highly stylized forms of promotional communication have been at the core of media-relations activity. Today, they might be referred to as media or news releases, but format and content rules have remained largely unchanged in over 100 years. Providing media with information in a way that is as close as possible in format to a news story helps PR practitioners to strip down their news to the main points, and helps journalists identify whether or not the story is relevant for their audience.
With consumers becoming increasingly selective about the types of promotional content they choose to consume (and increasingly annoyed at advertisers’ ever more desperate attempts to make them consume it), marketers are adopting novel methods to grab and maintain attention. Defined by the industry as “native advertising,” it is proliferating at a rapid rate, claiming to offer advertisers a better return on investment than traditional print, broadcast, or even online advertising. Broadly speaking, the term describes advertising that integrates high-quality content into users’ experience of any particular digital platform, with the aim of augmenting and enhancing user experience rather than interrupting or distracting from it.
If this sounds similar to traditional advertorial content (paid-for promotional content masquerading as editorial in print magazines), that’s probably because it is. Only the types of content are more varied and, crucially, more interactive than ever before. While native advertising is generally clearly branded, and therefore largely understood by consumers to be promotional material, it aims to provide content that is impossible for consumers to bypass, and it emulates whatever platform the consumer is interacting with at the time. Some of the more straightforward examples include “promoted Tweets” appearing in a user’s Twitter news feed, and Google Ads—advertising that tailors itself to a user’s search preferences within Google. If a brand is seen by consumers to be delivering valuable content, it is more likely to be able to achieve its other objectives of informing, persuading, reminding, and, ultimately, selling the product.
The elements of fashion advertising and PR that we observe around us are merely the tip of an iceberg-sized industry, which develops and metamorphoses at incredible speed. Every minute of every day, billions of messages are communicated via these disciplines to millions of consumers worldwide. Many—indeed most of them—pass us by, but those that stick have a significant, albeit often unrealized impact on our brand preferences and purchase behavior. Ask anyone you know why they chose to buy a particular garment or accessory, and the chances are that the powerful messages produced by advertising and PR activity won’t be mentioned. But scratch beyond the surface and it’s almost certain that these all-pervasive promotional techniques and technologies were ultimately responsible.