(July 3) There’s a business war going on for the minds, hearts and money of customers and potential buyers. The battleground for that war is advertising.

Advertising has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. In 1980 business spent around $55 billion on advertising. Today the figure is easily exceeds $250 billion. That doesn’t include the explosion in direct marketing to consumers — the nuisance phone calls, the spam e-mail and blast faxes.

The advertising explosion in many ways parallels the growth in the economy. Advertising business is down some, given the downturn in the economy. But that should just be a temporary blip.

The mind-set has changed. As businesses have gotten bigger they’ve become sophisticated about the use of advertising. It’s all become much more scientific, strategic and carefully targeted. That will increase.

In the movie, “Minority Report,” which takes place in the future, the character played by Tom Cruise is beset by advertising on big screens. As he passes the screens, the ads “recognize” him and call to him by name — beautiful women implore him to buy their products.

Even today, sellers can build profiles of their customers specifying what they buy, what they like, what they might like. These databases are invaluable. The Jones family favors ready-to-eat foods, prepared salads, fresh produce, white wines. Now ads and appeals can be tailored to individuals and families.

Contrast this with the old days, not so long ago, when a lot of companies had little in the way of advertising strategies. If business was good they might “throw in some ads.” If business was bad, the ad budget was cut. That’s not exactly a formula for success.

One heard arguments such as, “I don’t need to advertise — everybody knows us.” Or “I ran an ad and nobody called.” Of course, everybody has not heard of you, and you might never know why somebody called or didn’t call. In any case, the cost of doing nothing to promote your business is high.

So advertising works over time. Every ad doesn’t work. Every campaign is not a success. There’s a lot of bad advertising and bad strategy. There is also the question of saturation. We are inundated today with messages. Who can even begin to cut through this jungle?

It’s no longer a question of apples competing with oranges. Now one medium competes with another. Print media vs. electronic. The Internet vs. direct mail.

The whole mix of advertising media is changing rapidly. Internet advertising is here to stay. That’s all those pop-up ads, banners and strips and flashing boxes that turn Web sites into a mini-Times Square.

Then there is direct marketing. These are the people who love to annoy you at dinner time when you have to explain to them that you already have windows, siding and long-distance service, and no you don’t want a gold card or a free trip to somewhere because you know there are no really “free” trips.

Advertising really is like the carnival barker trying to entice the passing crowd into the tent to see the two-headed calf. You’ve got to get their attention, distract them from the Ferris wheel and convince them in seconds that inside the tent are things that will thrill, amuse and transform.

So in that sense, advertising doesn’t care if it annoys or bothers or even offends you. The worst sin is to be ignored. We all can recall ads we can’t stand, that we hate and scream at. Hate them, scream at them, but don’t ignore them — that’s the advertiser’s aim. There have been plenty of artsy-craftsy advertising campaigns that won awards but failed to move a product or service. Failure is failure.

So what is the best strategy for building an effective advertising campaign?

Well, there are certainly advisers who can help, particularly advertising agencies. They are the professionals at not only creating the ads, but whole campaigns, and they know how to research the media to match the advertiser with the right outlets. They also know how to sort through the advertising claims of the media companies. (For example, they can look for signs of effectiveness of a certain medium and not just rely on cost figures, the so-called CPM — or cost per thousand readers or viewers. The CPM can be low, and the effectiveness even lower. Cost is not the sole criterion.)

A lot of food and agricultural advertisers, suppliers and media companies belong to the National Agri-Marketing Association in Overland Park, Kan. This groups holds competitions for best advertising. It gives awards for a wide variety of ads and campaigns.

This year one of the winners was the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Orlando, for a public relations radio spot about watermelons and the fight against cancer. The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission Inc., Smithfield, was honored for its consumer Web site. The California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley, was given a special merit award for a consumer public relations campaign.

A lot of the winners represented the biggest agribusiness firms in the country — Monsanto, Deere, Bayer, Aventis, FMC, DuPont. But there were a lot of smaller winners, representing everything from produce to catfish. No one has a monopoly on creativity.