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“Will you please stop shoveling dirt on me?” On the Death of Advertising

July 28, 2009

Advertising needs some PR.  It’s been described as a tax on mediocrity and a sign of failure.  I miss the good old days when I was just a prostitute.

Since we’re dismissing entire industries, a definition seems in order here. I define advertising as controlled messages in controlled media.

But I don’t think this is what the advertising-is-failure contingent is talking about.  Google sells advertising, and I don’t think anyone would claim they sell failure. Geek Squad sprays its logo onto anything that moves and, as a part of Best Buy, promotes itself through television ads.

When people rag on advertising, they seem to be talking about what Luke Sullivan called hold-the-product-up-and-smile TV commercials. And that kind of advertising does seem to be in trouble, helped along by the recession.  The print habitat of other ads has vanished.

For now, the web slogs along with a combination of what Jeff Jarvis usefully calls “goodwill content,” what I’ll call display window content (look at my thinking), branded entertainment, inspired amateurism, venture capital, and generally lousy ads. Mousy classifieds. Twitchy banners. Inert logos.

But I don’t think advertising is dead.

At some point, if we want magazine-like content, or if we simply want to keep the servers running, we either have to accept ads or pay for content.  As with TV, we’ll do probably do a little of both.

And despite its promise, social media isn’t ready to replace advertising and, for deep structural reasons, I suspect it never will be.

Social media can be anti-social.

Like all media, social media has its drawbacks.

What I high mindedly call “the conversation” is the aggregate of blogs, blog comments, customer-generated reviews, social media status updates, forwarded videos of cats having bad days, chat rooms, user forums, and tweets. Some of this is an authentic back and forth between a brand and its customers. And some of the above is mean-spirited, banal, clueless, sub-literate, off-brand, outlying, spammy, covertly paid-for, of dubious provenance, and self-serving.

True word of mouth has its own problems.  The “awesome doesn’t need advertising” model ignores the difference between high engagement and low engagement products. Going on about search engines may or may not be a sign of boorishness.  Going on about toothpaste pretty much always is.

Such critiques also ignore the real function of advertising which is not to pour a good sauce on bad meat but to distill a brand essence and accelerate awareness.  This role is perfectly compatible with energetic word of mouth and high product quality. Just ask Apple.

Less a paradigm shift than a paradigm nudge.

Advertising isn’t dying but it is changing.

Sought advertising is already becoming more powerful; bought advertising will become less powerful. And this isn’t just about YouTube. In the forthcoming Adland, James P Othmer talks about networks measuring how many viewers drop off during a commercial—and adjusting the price to reflect the ad quality.

Social media looks like it is forcing ads to be less puffy.

However flawed, “the conversation” can yield testimonials, insights, and, yes, engagement.

The possibilities are ridiculous: short films, custom games, cross media scavenger hunts, interactive narrative arcs, tweeted events, all sorts of branded grooviness.

The real message is not an obituary, but a challenge: be remarkable, be honest, be attentive, be thoughtful about media.

Well. If I must.

Thanks to Glenn Hilton for pointing me to the study cited above. For a great review of the possibilities of our new media world look at Othmer’s book or Juicing The Orange by Pat Fallon and Fred Senn.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2009 3:04 pm

    Kevin, nice summary of what a lot of us marketing folks are thinking but may be afraid to say out loud for fear of retaliation by the social media police. As in any popular wave, social media hype is taken to extremes (I’m guilty of fanning the flames myself) and people tend to forget that effective marketing is using what works for the campaign, not applying the same stuff in every case.

  2. Kevin Fenton permalink*
    July 28, 2009 3:39 pm

    John–I’m similarly guilty and flame-fanning–and, like you, I share a genuine enthusiasm for social media–but a part of me also has a self interest in defending advertising (it pays the mortgage) and, like you, I have a professional interest in making sure that all the options are on the table for clients. I also think all the more reasonable social media folks–such as the people at radian6–acknowledge a role for advertising.

    • July 28, 2009 8:34 pm


      Great post! As someone who migrated from the traditional advertising world to social media, I can certainly relate to the contrasts that you point out. I think the changes that you point out are a good thing. We’ll get there. Thanks for the shoutout to Radian6.

      Warren Sukernek
      Director of Content Marketing

  3. July 28, 2009 8:44 pm

    Good thoughts Kevin. I agree that the advertising industry has been taking a bit of a beating lately but I’m sure it will come thru it all fine. Companies will be forced to get wiser on how they pitch their products as things evolve which will birth new ways to do advertising. I love social media and what it’s bringing to the world but at the same time agree that with it comes many new challenges. People will need to have realistic expectations around what it can and can’t do for their business and recognize that it may not be equally successful in all situations.

  4. Kevin Fenton permalink*
    July 28, 2009 8:51 pm

    Thanks, Warren. You’re right Glenn. Advertising is periodically called on to defend itself–it started back in the 50s with The Hidden Persuaders–and it’s generally good for us.

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