What if, in the not-so-distant future, advertising as we know it simply disappeared and ended up being banned from use entirely? Not to throw out any far-fetched ideas, but the signs that could be interpreted as a long-term trend are multiplying. It’s a bit like with the environment and the fight against tobacco. When René Dumont campaigned for French environmental issues in 1974—and explained that we were going to have serious problems before the end of the century while drinking a glass of water during a televised broadcast— he was regarded as a crazy environmentalist, not a visionary. History has shown that he was part of a movement that would successfully raise environmental awareness. In 2003, Michael Bloomberg banned smoking in bars across New York City despite political pressure and forecasts of a drop in economic activity. While the public’s concerns about second-hand smoke had yet to be vocalized, he felt strongly that it was time and, as a result, launched a trend that would influence all Western countries. Ten years later, the New York hospitality industry has grown by nearly 50 percent, with more people dining out without being subjected to cigarette smoke.
Why highlight these examples? Because they demonstrate how behaviour and opinions that were once considered to be set in stone have ended up evolving through the sheer will of a few people who leaned upon the quiescent expectations of the population at large. It’s a little bit like in design, when something new is created and we ask ourselves why it didn’t exist before because it just seems so obvious. It’s just that the time had come when we were collectively “ripe”.
Just so my motives about what follows won’t be put into question, I studied marketing and I have worked in communications for the last 25 years. I like (good) advertising and I’ve even been known to enjoy the abundance of ads that debut during the Super Bowl.
It wasn’t all that long ago that advertising played an important role in launching new products, such as with a poster or a television commercial that aired before the nightly news. It was a necessary but enjoyable evil—sometimes amusing, sometimes surprising—but most often just not enough to grab our attention. Volumes and spot placements were strictly monitored. As expressed by Patrick Le Lay, President of France’s first television channel, advertising captured a bit of our available brain space, but it was largely voluntary on our parts.
Lines have blurred
With the advent of the digital era, we’ve taken control over our need for information. Our attention and brain space are attributed elsewhere—on the web and social networking. In a parallel move, formats are breaking down, with new cable and satellite television channels, content and news websites coming onto the scene. Media have needed to boost their advertising pressure, sometimes to the point of being insufferable, just to survive. With their only reference being “the more times people see it, the more they will buy it,” advertisers have continued to invest massively in increasingly cheaper and less visible channels in a desperate attempt to capture even just a smidgen of consumer brain space. Even up to the point of using high-performance tools that entirely automate campaigns, pushing ads until the volume of desired actions (visit the brand site, visit the store, make a purchase) has been reached. On another note, “re-targeting” has exploded, exponentially increasing sales that it actually brings down the brand image. Slowly but surely we’re heading towards the purchase of generalized real-time ad space, with micro-bids in nanoseconds, much like what happens at the stock exchange.
The level of sophistication of these new tools is no longer the “be-all and end-all” when it comes to advertising innovation. Rather, it’s the diagnosis of the terminal illness that will eventually kill advertising. What was enjoyable has become intrusive. And just to put the cherry on the sundae, through no fault of “honest” advertising, junk mail has become an uncontrollable plague.
Bring it up with those around you and I’m sure everyone will agree. No one likes being bombarded by ads about a product that they may have checked out online at some point or another. Everyone clicks on the “skip ad” button when it is available. No one appreciates the giant “pop-up” that hides the content of the site they want to visit.
I am convinced that there is an underlying expectation to end this craziness.
What signs support this fundamental shift? Public powers and consumers are rallying to defend themselves. Permission marketing is gaining momentum. Who would ever have thought the idea of “opting in” would end up as legislation? Who would have thought that users would elect to nix “pop-up windows” that have made their navigation experience a true pain-in-the-neck? Who would ever have believed in the success of “plug-ins” designed to hide banners on websites? Who would have ever thought that Google would sell more advertising than US newspapers and magazines? Who would have thought that BuzzFeed would be profitable without ever having sold a single banner, in favour of sponsored editorial content?
For advertisers, agencies and the media, the only way to say no to this collective demise is to dare to use digital to invent new ways of interacting with consumers—just like most digital start-ups are doing these days. Because sooner or later, the feeling of intrusion will become so collectively intolerable that unsolicited advertising will disappear all together, either by law or its own ineffectiveness. And with it, will go the brands that haven’t jumped on the bandwagon. It’s easy to say, but not so easy to implement.
We must all get used to producing and accepting briefs that begin with “Imagine a world where unsolicited advertising no longer exists…”
This article was first published on Infopresse.
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