This expression relates to the coal mining days when ventilation in coal mines was often insufficient, and mining was was a very dangerous and difficult task.
Coal miners would bring a canary with them. Canaries tend to be sensitive to methane and carbon dioxide and so when the canary died suddenly, the miners knew that there was a prevalence of deadly gasses in the chamber they had just entered, and they knew to get out, right away.
To say that “Advertising is the canary” is to say that in the world markets, advertising budgets (the canary) tend to be more sensitive to revenue swings as an indicator of troubled financial times ahead (a chamber filled with explosive methane gas.)
Alternatives to this may be “Marketing is the canary” which reflects reductions in across-the-board marketing expenditures instead of the single financial line item of marketing budgets which is advertising.
Why is Advertising the canary?
For one, Advertising tends to be expensive (have you met a marketer who didn’t want to spend money?), and the value is often not well understood, and marketing can be difficult to measure.
In trim times, aside from laying off workers which, personally, I would prefer not to do, it is easier to reduce advertising and marketing costs short term until revenues bounce back from leaner times.
Unfortunately, trimming advertising budgets can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if you reduce your advertising in the short term, your sales will usually also drop in the short and long term as well.
Don’t undervalue marketing
From my own experience, in lean times it is best to keep your marketing expenditures steady or use a scalpel (to coin the Presidential analogy), continue as needed, and find other ways to reduce costs:
- Examine budgets and expenditures and trim any non-necessary monthly expenditures. The company I work for trimmed $18,000 in yearly expenses by making some simple changes and eliminating unnecessary monthly subscriptions.
- Measure your marketing using a low-cost, easy-to-use tool such as the one my company offers. Using the data, reduce only those advertising budgets which do not produce the Return on Investment you need to grow.
- Ruminate on your business model and work on improving your products, your customer’s experience, and your business practices to make them as efficient as possible, based on customer feedback preferably.