It might seem a bit silly to write a book about the death of advertising in a time when we are exposed, on average, to more advertising each day than at any time in the past. Consider, for example, how much advertising you encounter on a daily basis. From the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, you are bombarded with advertising messages. We all are. Our phones push spam and robocalls into our inboxes and voicemail boxes. Every outdoor surface and most pieces of paper we receive in the mail are plastered with advertisements. Advertising makes up one-fourth of all TV broadcasts, and few of us have visited major websites without a deluge of blinking, screaming, or moving advertisements. We have so many ads that sometimes the ads actually advertise other advertisements!
And yet advertising executive Andrew Essex, who is the CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, has written a new book in which he argues that the forms of advertising that dominated the twentieth century are on their last legs. Essex claims that the digital revolution has undercut one of the key pillars of advertising.
Essentially, for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, advertising was the price you paid to receive free or low-cost media. If you wanted to watch TV, you had to sit through the commercials. If you wanted to read the newspaper, you had to flip through the ads that surrounded the articles. The model advertisers have used since the 1960s is called “command and control,” and it aims to inject ads in the most intrusive way possible to command and control the audience’s attention. Essex believes that this model of advertising not only makes audiences mad but is also ineffective. It only worked because it was a sort of social compact in which audiences had little choice because of limited media options.
But in the digital era, it is no longer necessary to opt into a social compact with advertisers. DVRs let us skip over commercials. Ad-blocking software lets us cut the ads out of web pages. Sure, some companies are fighting back by trying to force audiences to watch ads, but consumers are just as likely to go somewhere else in a world of near-infinite choice than they are to accept the devil’s bargain with ads.
Essex says that ad blocking software is “the greatest thing that has ever happened to the advertising industry,” and that’s not because it knocks out ads. Instead, it forces advertisers to react to consumer demands and needs, and to realize that consumers won’t sit through ads that have no value for them.
To that end, Essex praises companies that have found ways to turn ads into content, creating engaging media products that promote a company’s goods while giving the audience something to enjoy. He cites The Lego Movie as a key example of the way a corporation could take what is, at heart, an infomercial for Lego’s many different playsets and turn it into a compelling movie that audiences actually paid to see.
Essex notes that the integration of brand and film occurred in such a compelling way that not only was the movie a smash hit but Lego saw a bump in sales, meaning that audiences both paid to receive an ad and were influenced by that ad to go out and buy. In many ways, this is a bit of a return to the way advertising was done in the radio and early TV eras, when programs were paid for and built around specific brands, with stories that supported an advertiser’s goals but which remained interesting and compelling enough for audiences to want to return to week after week.
Essex concludes his brief but fascinating study by suggesting that advertising still has a future, but one that is very different from today’s carpet-bombing style of total ad saturation. Essex believes that the future of advertising is to create better and more compelling content, material that audiences want to engage with, not just material that they are forced to engage with. After all, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and right now modern advertising has left the galling taste of vinegar in too many consumers’ mouths to continue on as it has for the past fifty years.
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