Advertising and Marketing

PR & Advertising: What’s the Difference? 

By Mckayla White on February 12, 2024

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A young Black man wearing all yellow is shouting into a megaphone on a yellow background.

Some might say that public relations and advertising are the same – those people are wrong. While PR and advertising have many similarities and often bounce off each other, they are completely different specialties. PR and advertising are used together and sometimes mistaken for each other, but what is their real difference?  

PR – Definition and Purpose  

PR is managing the relationship between the client and the public. This is done to influence the public to think positively of said client. PR revolves around creating, releasing, and controlling information. Not to be mistaken for publicity, which cannot be controlled. PR directly responds to and sometimes causes publicity. Because of this, PR is a continuous process that does not stop. For example, when Logan Paul, a YouTuber who published a video of him and his group of friends in the suicide forest joking around and filming a dead body, released his first statement, he received backlash. Which resulted in him releasing a second statement; still, it received backlash, resulting in him taking a step away from the public and coming back months later to show he had changed, still to this day, there is conversation about the incident and is brought up when Paul is mentioned. PR is something that never ends and will always be present.  

PR can be seen in multiple forms, such as statements, media training, stunts, conferences, etc.   

PR is earned, challenging to measure ultimately, and based on opinion.  

Advertising – Definition and Purpose

Advertising uses specific techniques to bring attention to something with a specific goal in mind, like reach or sales, meaning that it is typically one-sided communication to the audience rather than a continuous conversation like PR. However, that does not imply that advertising cannot open a line of dialogue with the public. For example, McDonald’s’ Our Food, Your Questions campaign was a direct response to consumers’ conversations about McDonald’s at the time and revolved around audience participation. When an advertising campaign ends, the conversation on the advertising side ends; any further conversation is PR unless another advertising campaign is launched in response.   

Advertising comes in many forms: TV or radio commercials, influencer sponsorships, billboards, social media ads, and more.   

Advertising is paid, easily measured, and based on metrics.  

In short, PR is strategic communication and earned media, while advertising is producing and releasing advertisements through paid media. Both share similarities in their purpose. They aim to make the client look good in the public’s eye and influence their audience; however, they differ vastly in how and why they do that.  

Which is better?  

PR and advertising are both highly effective if done correctly. Both can drastically impact perception and influence the audience. However, advertising has a less favourable reputation; to be frank, it could use some good PR. Many consumers dislike advertising and feel negatively about it, and can you blame them? No one wants a product or service shoved in their face and told how to spend their hard-earned money, especially in this economy. Humans, at heart, are suspicious of advertising, but that is where PR comes in. PR is highly effective because it relies on trust. PR aims to make people believe you through trust. Good PR is credible. 

Additionally, because PR is earned, it does not always come from the person or company of interest; PR can result from public responses and opinions, which makes people trust more. It is evident that advertising is about promotion, while PR does so more subtly. PR and advertising are highly effective, likely more effective than you probably realize, but neither is better because they are meant for different purposes. Just like you cannot properly compare apples to oranges because they are both fruit, you cannot properly compare PR to advertising because they both deal with promotion and media.   

The Difference Through Examples  

PR and advertising are so similar and used together that it can be challenging to spot the difference in real life because everything muddles together. Let’s look at some examples of PR and advertising and how they become each other.   

A strong example of PR is the Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis incident. The two wrote character letters for former costar Danny Masterson, who has been convicted of two counts of rape, claiming that he was a good person and role model. After receiving backlash, the couple released an Instagram reel apologizing for the pain they had caused. The public did not take kindly to the video, which ultimately resulted in Kutcher stepping down from his position at Thorn, an organization he co-founded that fights against child sex abuse. PR is written all over this situation. From the backlash, the joint video statement, and the media coverage to stepping down from Thron. All of this is PR, and no advertising is present.   

An example of advertising turning into PR is the controversy over Kim Kardashian’s Kimono, later Skims. The shapewear company, now known as Skims, was announced and advertised as Kimono, a traditional Japanese garment. After many went to social media to criticize the name, Kardashian released a statement, not apologizing but explaining her intentions and announcing that there would be a new name for the company. What was supposed to be a large advertising campaign quickly became a PR disaster.

Advertising turns into PR often and not always for poor reasons. For example, the Coca-Cola Hug Me campaign was where a vending machine that said “hug me” was placed at a university in Singapore. When hugged, the vending machine would release a free Coca-Cola. This advertising campaign garnered a lot of positive PR. Often, PR and advertising go hand in hand, in both good and bad ways.   

Just like how advertising can quickly turn into PR, PR can also turn into advertising. Look at the Skims example. After the controversy, Kim Kardashian and Skims laid low until coming back with an entire ad campaign launching the shapewear brand under a new name. The first name caused a lot of bad PR, but because of this, people were watching, making the Skims launch more successful. Now, Skims is a recognizable name everyone loves, no longer associated with controversy.

Another example of PR turning into advertising is how Ariana Madix has used Scandoval to her advantage. Scandoval came to be when Madix’s long-term boyfriend, Tom Sandoval, had an affair with her friend Raquel, now Rachel, Leviss. When the news broke, everyone was on Madix’s side, and she earned a lot of positive PR, which she has since used to her advantage. Madix has grown her following, promoted her new book, been on Dancing with the Stars, and is now starring in Chicago on Broadway. Madix acted on the PR received from Scandoval and has advertised herself and her business ventures, ensuring she benefits from the affair.   

All that to say…

PR and advertising are similar and work very closely together, but major differences exist. They are used for different reasons and achieve different results, but you usually never have one without the other. PR is always around, whether you realize it or not. In the age of social media, almost everything can be considered under the PR umbrella because everything is being discussed and shared. Similarly, advertising is also always present, just in a different way. Understanding PR and advertising is a strategic advantage because they are used to deploy communication tools for specific objectives, whether building trust or driving attention and sales. Knowing how PR and advertising operate is crucial in a world where reputation is currency. PR and advertising influence how you think, speak, and act. By understanding the difference between PR and advertising, the public is empowered by the ability to navigate the landscape of information and persuasion. 

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