Advertising’s 30 Year Crisis

This blog post is based on the social media masterclass lecture I gave at Manchester Metropolitan University on 13 January 2011.

Advertising is now in the third, maybe even the fourth decade of its existential crisis.

What is advertising for? Why don’t we love it any more?

Advertising itself isn’t short of fans or irrelevant. Our fascination with MadMen is as solid proof as you could wish for.

But that idea of advertising, the creation of a web of ideals and aspirations is now at least 50 years old.

I imagine a lot of people go to work in agencies thinking that this will be the day they become Don Draper and take a client on a magical ride from a wheel to a carousel and leave them open mouthed in admiration, cheque book in hand.

The Kodak Carousel Pitch

Dream on.

But the persistent idea of advertising as the visualisation of an abstract ideal worming its way into our imagination had a pretty short life.  Fundamental social changes like feminism and even the proliferation of TV itself, putting the grim realities of Vietnam, international economic crises and social unrest straight into our eyeballs put advertisers dreams through a harsh filter and made them irrelevant and anachronistic even before Don Draper had drained his last martini, pitched his last pitch and retired to the Hamptons.

So advertising underwent its great transformation.

Simple and simplistic dreams were no longer enough to hold our gaze so advertisers changed the terms of the transaction by going upmarket. Our attention was to be bought through wit and a knowing wink that we were in on the act. Having created the concept of the consumer age, it was only logical that we would become sophisticated players of the game.

The advertising that for me most typifies this was Silk Cut, with its lush art direction, the absence, (demanded by legislation) of any claims or benefits and its own minimal, visual language established over years of investment.

The ad as gallery art.

This reached its peak in this ad, the last ad in the series as the ban on cigarette advertising loomed. The fat lady is singing. It’s time to go.

But if this shift took place in the mid 1970s what great evolutionary change has advertising has made since, faced with changes in consumer behaviour just as immense?

I struggle to think of one.

I think we quite like the idea of advertising, because much of it is amusing and produced with just as much wit and craft as it ever was. But liking isn’t the same as buying. The implication of that sentence for Facebook is something for another day, by the way.

Nowhere is this truer than in digital advertising and that’s a problem for social media.

ComScore research shows that the numbers of US internet users clicking on ads is falling at a dramatic rate, a 50% drop year on year and that almost unbelievably, just 8% of internet users account for 85% of clicks.

That points to a future that is basically unsustainable for media owners and behind the bubble like valuation of Facebook, the signs are ominous. In the last month or so we have learnt that MySpace is cutting half of its workforce, Delicious is facing closure and its owner Yahoo cannot shake investor nerves. Even Apple couldn’t get its social network Ping to work. Who might be next?

The future of advertising and the future of social media are like the DNA double helix.

The challenge for advertising to reinvent itself is also the threat to social media activity that depends on a social channel or platform being available.

Fans of social media are fond of saying that ‘social is free’ because there is little or no media cost. Aside from the investment in creating content that has ‘shareability’ the cost of the channel is very much there, it’s just that it is being met by others. The others seem to be getting a raw deal in this model.

There are examples of advertising re-inventing. The ad campaign for Old Spice points the way.

No need to go into the detail of that one, but I do want to make the point that it was an ad campaign beginning middle and end. It worked because once it had got our attention in such wonderfully creative and socially intelligent way there was an old-fashioned coupon mechanism giving people the trigger to buy. Once that coupon offer ended so did the sales uplift.

What Old Spice did was to employ the wit and knowingness of advertising’s second age to make fun of the comic-book macho ideals of the Mad Men era. The killer insight was to reveal the inner workings of the ad production mechanism in a way that made it irresistible to share. But like the Wizard of Oz, revealing the truth behind the curtain is something you can really only do once.

I pity the agencies working for Old Spice’s main brand rivals who must be getting it in the neck from CMO’s shouting “Give me that but bigger”. But even harder is the call from Old Spice to their agency with the same message.

The temptation is to go further down the self-referential route but using your own ad to create content and viral attention is focussing on the ad not the brand. Great for the agency’s new business funnel but the brand owner may not be too happy.

Fundamentally the point of convergence between the need for advertising to succeed in order to make social platforms viable and the interests of the brand owner in getting a fair return on investment is for all parties to confront the truth behind Andy Sernowitz’s great phrase: Advertising is the Cost of Being Boring.

If it requires money to attract attention then the success of that strategy is unlikely to be a function of how much money is on the table, the problem is deeper. This is more likely to be the underlying cause of those atrocious click-through rates that ComScore revealed than defective creative.

It follows that making the change from boring to interesting is going to reap rewards in a sustainable way (ie over multiple budget cycles) in which advertising’s appeal has greater relevance and the probability of social success, defined by measures of content shareability will also increase.

This is the win/win that advertising agencies, PR agencies, digital agencies and perhaps most crucially media owners must all strive for.

What do you think?


One comment for “Advertising’s 30 Year Crisis”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nigel Sarbutts, Nigel Sarbutts. Nigel Sarbutts said: Why you should worry about the crisis in advertising. Blog: [...]

    Posted by Tweets that mention Advertising’s 30 Year Crisis | BrandAlert -- | January 25, 2011, 5:17 pm

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