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Why advertising as we've known it sucks
"No one gets in to see the Wizard," said the man in the funny green coat and handlebar mustache. "Not nobody, not no how!" The motley group assembled outside the giant doors to the Emerald City would not be turned back. They knocked again (the sign on the door read "Bell out of order, please knock") and sweet talked their way in by dropping some names and flashing a little bling.
Inside the fantastic lair of green smoke, magical sparks, and sonorous pronouncements, the mysterious figure declared, "The Beneficent Oz has every intention of granting your requests." But at a cost! A steep price must be paid. Surprisingly, the group found the resources and paid the wage. To their dismay, the mysterious figure refused to give them what they actually wanted and told them instead to come back tomorrow.
"You ungrateful creatures!" he roared. "Think yourselves lucky that I'm giving you an audience tomorrow, instead of twenty years from now! Oh! The Great Oz has spoken!"
Since before Dorothy dropped a house on the WWotE, advertisers have been promising their clients they can do all sorts of wondrous things, using what my Dad still refers to as "blue smoke and mirrors." They promise the client to give them brains, provide them courage, even make them appear to have a heart. Some of it is - as the Wizard admitted - humbug. For as the 1970s soft rock superband "America" sang, "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he couldn't get from Bill Cosby or Sir Galahad."
Like the mere mortal the Great Oz ultimately turns out to be, too often the wizards of advertising implore their clients to spend fortunes on antiquated methods that sell nothing to nobody, no way, no how. When it comes to measurable results, they tell their clients to "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Not because there's no magic - but because they have no way to prove to the people who pay for the ads that there is. They don't measure. They don't audit. They simply proclaim themselves wizards, provide you with a scrap of paper, and expect you to blurt out, "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side."
Today, traditional advertising is a square peg in a society that has evolved into a round hole. You can still market your business or your product effectively - but if you only had a brain you wouldn't continue to advertise the way they did when Judy Garland popped her last Seconal. What is needed for advertisers, for business owners, and for consumers is a new way of looking at things. They need a horse of a different color.
There, I said it. Advertising sucks. Yes, I know I'm biting the hand that's fed me for nearly 30 years. I've spent many years and made a lot of money in advertising. I've shot countless TV commercials. I've spent more hours than I can remember in broadcast studios editing and re-editing voice-over scripts, often times desperately attempting to jam 67 seconds of copy into a 60 second spot. I've signed off on more layouts for print ads and coupon fliers than any one individual should be subjected to by law. I've stood in pitch meeting after pitch meeting imploring CEOs to entrust me with the good name of their brands, then told them later that (in all candor) their products weren't that good to begin with. I've made those attack ads for politicians that will - if there's any sense of justice in the world - surely relegate me to one of the farthest levels of Dante's Inferno when I die. I've also logged an infinite number of hours on campaign buses to nowhere and fielded more than one middle-of-the-night phone call from a candidate's wife complaining angrily that he "doesn't have his pillow."
Advertising doesn't suck because it's a hard job. It's not. Coal mining? Now that's a hard job. Corrections officer? Teaching high school? Media spokesman for a Third-World dictator? All those things are way tougher than working in advertising. How do I know? Just watch TV. On "Rescue Me" all the firefighters are constantly escaping death, jumping out of windows, or are haunted by the demons of the horrors they've witnessed. On "The Shield" all the police officers regularly escape death, jumping out of windows, or are haunted by the demons of the horrors they've witnessed. On "Hannah Montana," all the high school kids are forever escaping death, jumping out of windows, or are haunted by the oily condition of their skin. What happens on "Mad Men," the AMC drama about 1960s ad executives? They sit around in vintage suits on comfortable furniture smoking and drinking all day long. Nobody is cheating death. Nobody is jumping out windows (except in the opening credits). Nobody is haunted (except perhaps by cirrhosis of the liver or a hacking smoker's cough).
Advertising sucks because generally speaking it's no good. It's no longer effective. It's just as dated as Don Draper's suits or the community ash tray on the Sterling Cooper conference room table. So pour yourself a highball, light up a Lucky Strike, and let me tell you what I mean when I say advertising sucks.
You're not the boss of me
Advertising sucks because now more than perhaps any other time consumers like to think for themselves (or like to believe that they can think for themselves). As soon as we're three or four years old, we don't want to hold Mommy's hand anymore. "I can do it on my own," we say (right before we spill the entire carton of milk by missing the cereal bowl). We want to be independent and self-sufficient. It was true when we were four and it's true now that we're adults.
Nobody wants to be told what to do, what to like, what to believe, or how to behave. Mothers-in-law have tried it for years and have gotten a bad rep. Imagine a stranger coming up to you at a party and telling you that his favorite music is the best or that Senator Pickering is a "Washington insider" and is the guy you definitely shouldn't vote for. You'd think this party-goer was a tool and you'd politely excuse yourself to get more onion dip.
Nobody likes to be told what to think. And they certainly don't like to be told what to buy. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, this is what modern advertising does. Look at those cool sneakers. I'm drinking a premium beer. Who wouldn't want to save twenty-five percent on their long distance calling? Look at me with the Viagra!
Brought to you by
Advertising sucks because the consuming public views it as, well, "advertising." We instantly can see through that age-old ruse known as a sales pitch. Our brains are constantly triaging the flow of information with which we are incessantly bombarded. When we're exposed to a commercial or some other form of advertising, our brain automatically sends this information to the "not important" lobe instead of the lobe where we keep stuff that we have to pay attention to and retain.
Remember our friend from the party? Suppose he pointed to the onion dip and said, "That's some of the best onion dip I've ever had." With that kind of testimonial, you're very likely to pick up a potato chip and dive in. Now suppose for a minute, the guy who gave this ringing endorsement was also wearing a polo shirt with a logo for "Fred's Old Fashioned Onion Dip" embroidered on the front. Suppose that neatly arranged next to the dip on the kitchen table are several cans of "Fred's Old Fashioned Onion Dip." There's a banner on the kitchen wall for "Fred's" and this party guest hands you a 50 cents off coupon before you can even get your greasy fingers on a chip. You might look at this guy in the "Fred's Old Fashioned Onion Dip" shirt and say to yourself, "Wow. This guy really likes this stuff. Maybe too much." But more likely you're going to think, "This guy is getting paid to tell me he likes the onion dip." How much credence are you going to put into that "best I ever tasted" comment? Not much.
Advertising sucks because we've developed a sixth sense about what messages are important and entertaining and which are just "advertising." I call this the "advertising gland." We know when someone's talking jive. We're able to filter out what we think is a paid testimonial, which we assume is insincere, misleading, or biased.
Perhaps even more importantly - and this is good news for those of us who want desperately to sell stuff - consumers can also detect when a fellow consumer is truly, genuinely, and sincerely excited about a product or brand. Think about the first iPhone you ever saw. Was it in a store window or did somebody enthusiastically pull it from their pocket and show you all the whiz-bang features? These days "viral enthusiasm" expressed from one consumer to another is invaluable.
The advertising gland in the human brain has gotten bigger and more potent as ads and advertising techniques have gotten savvier. But, we still know when it's safe to go the bathroom when we're watching a sitcom. Because at the end of the day, it's just a commercial break.
Not now, I'm busy
Advertising sucks because peopleare disinterested. They're distracted. They don't have time to listen to the message because they're doing other things.
Do you own a radio (I'm not talking about an iPod. I mean a real radio)? If you're over the age of 15, then it's probably either in your car, your alarm clock, or maybe the bathroom. How many times in the last 10 years has someone asked you what you were doing and you said, "Listening to the radio"? I'll bet ... you can't remember. You probably said "I'm driving to work," "I'm taking a shower," "I'm making breakfast for the kids," or "Mmhumph, five more minutes please, zzzzzzz." Virtually everybody that's listening to a radio right now is doing something else as well. The great news about a semi-annual tire sale is not likely to cut through the static already present in the listener's life.
Radio broadcasters have always known they were competing with their listeners' environment to get their attention. Today, we multitask so effortlessly that not even the most dominant form of media - the Sacred of Sacreds - the television, is immune (no matter how big your flat screen). A 2007 study by Park Associates found that seventy percent of people younger than thirty-four watch TV while online. In a report published the next year, nearly sixty-eight percent of all adults regularly watched TV while using a computer, according to BIGresearch. A 2008 study by Blinkx found that seventy percent of all adults in Britain go onto the Internet while watching television. These figures don't even take into account the numbers of people who, while the television is on, are actually reading, napping, making popcorn, making whoopee, or searching for that damn remote control (it was right here a minute ago I swear to God!).
My time, not yours
Advertising sucks because people can select where and when they consume content. No longer do we have "Must-see TV" that we all felt we had to watch in order to get the inside jokes the next day at the office. If we missed "Must-see TV," we had no idea why our co-workers were shouting at each other, "No soup for you!" or singing "Smelly Cat." Now we can DVR the show or view it online and watch it over breakfast or even the following week.
There is no more "eventTV." (Ok, the Winter Olympics have had pretty good viewership for NBC, but it feels like 70% of the coverage was ice dancing and pairs figure skating - enough already!) Even the Super Bowl, a quasi-national holiday built around watching TV, is not a guaranteed win for advertisers. According to Nielsen, TV ratings for the Super Bowl have been on the rise the past decade, but viewership historically plummets in the second half if the game becomes a blow-out.
The tradition of watching the evening news is also quickly dying. I remember as a kid when my father would come home from work he'd fix himself a cocktail then sit down and watch the NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor. It was his chance to get caught up on what had happened around the world since he read his morning paper. My mother and I would join him in front of the TV. When the broadcast was over, we'd get up and have dinner. While the habit of watching the national news at 6:30 is still ingrained into many older viewers (as if you couldn't tell by the kinds of senior remedies and pharmaceutical products that populate the commercial breaks), fewer and fewer people are actually clocking in. In fact, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, viewership of the Big 3 network evening newscasts has dropped more than twenty-five percent since 2005. Nearly nine out of every ten Americans is skipping the nightly news.
We no longer have to make an appointment to watch the news. Since CNN started the 24-hour news network in 1980, we can get caught up on world events at the top and bottom of every hour. With the Internet, we can get our news on demand, immediately. We also can predetermine what kind of news we want (health reports, local weather, libertarian politics, news about the cast of Law and Order) or conversely what kind of news we don't want to hear about (foreign policy, financial analysis, stories about war, anything to do with the Jacksons).
I can't believe I paid for the whole thing
Advertising sucks because advertisers waste too much money on ineffective ads. There's an old joke about a CEO who says, "I know half of my advertising is effective. I just don't know which half."
The people who spend this money have no measurable return on investment. Especially in broadcasting, there is no empirical way to know exactly how many people a commercial reaches.
The word "broadcasting" comes from an agricultural term. Instead of carefully sowing seeds into neat beds, a farmer might spread a handful of seeds over a wide area with a "broad cast." Some seeds would land on fertile soil; others would land among the rocks or weeds where they were unlikely to grow. The analogy is apt because the radio signals (and later television signals) constantly fall on the ears of people in their homes or cars. Considering the breadth and depth of those radio waves that originated at those red-and-white painted towers which blanket a region, there are quite literately thousands of square miles of message wasted on those without receivers and uninterested in the programming.
The industry has generally accepted the findings of ratings collection companies such as Arbitron and Nielsen to be their yardstick to determine audience size (which would help set advertising rates). But the dirty little secret about ratings is that they're all a guess. While some recent technologies, such as the People Meter, have made it easier to automatically document channel and time of viewing, most of the ratings have been collected the same way for decades. The rating shares and cumulative audience numbers are divined by surveying a small group of people, then extrapolating their answers over the larger population. Is it true that 10.3 million people watched Conan O'Brien's final episode of "The Tonight Show"? I don't know. But I'm pretty sure that Nielsen didn't actually ask 10.3 million people if they did.
This small sampling of participants is asked to keep diaries for one week and self-report what radio stations they heard or what TV shows they watched. I don't know about you, but when I was in school and given a weeklong assignment I didn't usually do it until the night before it was due. If most people are like me in this regard, then this Thursday night they'll be sitting at the kitchen table trying to remember which radio stations they bounced among while driving to work Monday morning.
But the true Return on Investment isn't measured in how many bodies a commercial has reached. It's whether that commercial generated any sales for the advertiser. And there are few ways to gauge whether some guy bought that McDonald's hamburger because the company spent a reported $823 billion on advertising in 2008 - or whether he just really wanted some red meat fast.
Is there no hope?
Advertising itself doesn't suck. The way we disseminate advertising these days sucks. Over the years we've seen plenty of effective, creative ads in print and in broadcast. But while the paradigm of how we absorb information has changed, too little about advertising's better qualities have followed suit. In fact, if we as an industry keep advertising to the masses in a way that says we don't respect them, what we'll get is a bunch of angry consumers who simply decide to tune out.
Excerpted from Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain by Patrick Griffin Kevin Flynn Copyright © 2010 by GY&K. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 14, 2010
Posted May 12, 2010
I just finished reading "Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain" and found it highly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud funny, and at times - jaw-dropping. Pat's natural knack for storytelling shines through; the stories about celebrities like Ted Williams (who is at times downright ornery, other times, surprisingly emotive and selfless) and Robin Leach (who is more generous and down-to-earth than expected) really round out the book in the most colorful of ways. Pat's decades of experience in the ad/communications world is evident, and his understanding that things are rapidly changing in his field and those involved have to do something about it - NOW - or face dire consequences is, for lack of a better phrase, right on the money.
I recommend you pay attention to "Pay No Attention"... You wouldn't want Pat to call YOU a soul-less gargoyle, now would you? (Oh yes, he really is arrogant enough to use that phrase. I won't spoil it anymore. Get the book!)
Posted June 14, 2010
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Posted May 5, 2010
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