Update 08/04/2009: Correcting an error that I had written below: the co-author of this study is C. Robert Clark of the Institute of Applied Economics in Montreal, not Robert C. Clark of Harvard University. Incidentally, one of the co-authors of the paper is from Harvard University. Tricky!
I've been writing a lot recently about Spider-Man. The reason is that the group of writers who put out The Amazing Spider-Man have recently released a gigantic sized issue, which contains several stories, almost all of which touch upon Peter Parker's struggle to keep himself afloat in the economy.
In one story, Peter finds himself in a museum staring at, much to his dismay, a model of a "Spider-Mobile" that an advertising agency had helped him design in order to better brand his name. It sound silly, but it is understandable why Spidey would want to better market his image. With J. Jonah Jameson previously running The Daily Bugle, one of the most prominent newspapers in New York City, and now with him as Mayor, Spider-Man's popularity ebbs and flows. He wants to take every opportunity that he can in order to convince the public that he is a champion rather than a vigilante menace. One way of achieving this is through appropriate advertising.
Here's the problem: turns out that the Spider-mobile might have been ill-conceived. It seems as though rather than garnering public support, it may have had the adverse effect of eliciting public ridicule. In the museum, Peter is tormented as he watches a group of kids laughing at the automobile rather than praising it and, by extension, supporting Spider-Man himself.
However, Spider-Man shouldn't fret too much. In actuality, it is not likely that advertising and branding would have really altered public perception of the web-crawler. A recent study (not sure if there is an ungated version) by Robert C. Clark of Harvard University examined a panel data set of advertising expenditures for over 300 brands in order to determine the effect on both brand awareness and perceived quality. The overall results suggest that advertising expenditures have a significant effect on awareness but no significant effect on perceived quality.
There does, however, seem to be a noted distinction once measuring the effects for different categories of products. For example, expenditures for the fast food industry had a marginal effect of 0.0144 on brand awareness and a marginal effect of 0.000727 on perceived quality (which is pretty large compared to the rest of the categories).
The author does admit to some limitations. For instance, the relationship between expenditures, brand awareness and perceived quality is only tested for the short-run. A larger panel might reveal some more significant results, particularly for quality (although a six-year panel is pretty long as far as short-run goes).
Similar theories have been argued with regard to politicians and campaign finances. Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics, for example, have found no significant relationship between campaign spending and electoral outcomes.
In general, I think this means that Spider-Man should not worry too much about what a particular group of children think about his corny Spidey-Mobile. As he is not selling fast food or consumer electronics, it is unlikely to have a significant effect on the public's perception of him as a hero. In fact, maybe Spider-Man should focus more on heroics and less on advertising, as I doubt it would even serve much to increase his awareness. Jameson is pretty much doing that job for him.
Really, advertising and branding probably works best for new heroes trying to break into the business, such as the Super Young Team. As they are up-and-coming, they need significant brand awareness to compete in the market. Hence, the fact that they engage in these marketing ventures (using twitter, associating themselves with particular products, etc.), could actually have a positive effect for their recognition.
For Spider-Man, however, just get out there and keep beating up Doc Ock. As the saying goes, there is no bad publicity.