Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Skip Past the Ads, But You're Still Being Sold

From Sunday's Washington Post
By James P. Othmer

In the 1960s Madison Avenue era, painstakingly re-created in the cult hit television show "Mad Men," which returns Sunday for its third season, advertisers could buy a fixed block of airtime on television and be guaranteed a captive audience. That's what Winston cigarettes did for the inaugural season of "The Flintstones" in 1960; cartoon-loving prospective smokers tuned in to see Fred and Barney gleefully puffing away, shilling the product.

But now if we don't like an ad, we can zap, TiVo and DVR it into consumer oblivion. If it truly offends -- say we discover it is fake or untruthful -- we can trash the brand on our blogs or write nasty comments under the spot on YouTube.

On the other hand, if we're entertained enough by something a brand does, we can do its job for it -- by becoming its social media champion. That's what millions of people do every day. They "elf" themselves for OfficeMax each holiday season, spreading the word about discount paper products while having online fun in Santa's workshop. They forward Cadbury's "gorilla playing drums" video to anyone who likes to see a primate jam. A few years ago, they had their way with a man in a chicken suit with Burger King's "subservient chicken," which had 25 million visitors during its first 48 hours online.

And in the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands -- including seemingly every ad person I know -- have been playing along with AMC's ramp-up for Sunday's premiere, joining a "Mad Men Casting Call" and flocking to the meta social-media promotion "Mad Men Yourself," which lets people swap their Facebook profile pics for hip "Mad Men" avatars.

Ads in the "Mad Men" day were about the art of persuasion. Advertising today is about the art of engagement.

Nowhere was this more apparent to me than at the epicenter of advertising yet-to-come, the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. During a two-day visit there I never saw a single idea in the medium that had been advertising's delivery system of choice since the days of, well, Don Draper: the 30-second network television commercial.

Instead, I saw discreetly branded viral video shorts, graphic novels and performance art. I saw Facebook and Twitter campaigns for mega-brands, and real-world scavenger hunts and online interaction with fictional characters. It didn't seem like the industry in which I'd worked for more than 20 years. When I left advertising in 2005, every major campaign still revolved around the almighty TV spot.

And this isn't happening only at VCU. For two years I visited many of the most progressive idea factories for the $670 billion-a-year global industry. Everything revolved around viral, immersive, "360 degree" advertising, with nary a martini or a TV spot in sight.

On the surface this seems pretty good, this two-way digital transparency model that seemingly makes it incumbent upon advertisers to step up the truthfulness and entertainment value of their messages. Indeed, many smarter agency-guided brands already get this and have thrived because of it. At the very least, it's much less harmful than the loosely regulated, sex-in-the-ice-cubes booze and cigarette ads churned out by the chain-smoking, sublime persuaders of the 1950s and '60s, right?

Not quite. Because while we now have the ability to assert more control over advertising, we're unwillingly being bombarded by more messages than ever, infiltrating our lives in new and increasingly insidious ways.

The market research firm Yankelovich estimates that the average American living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day. Today, estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000 ad impressions a day. To hone in on a more accurate number, one would have to determine what exactly constitutes an ad in today's ambiguous media environment. Print, radio, TV and online pop-up and banner ads are easy to tally. But what about Internet search results, recommendations on Amazon, subtle product placements in film, music and TV, and, of course, spam?

Then there's the blogosphere, where an entire cottage industry blurs the line between content and advertising, truth and spin.

This month, it was revealed that pharmaceutical companies had hired ghostwriters with no medical training to produce and disseminate "research papers" for online public consumption. Before the drug companies were the mommy bloggers -- parents writing about their children, and their children's favorite products, online. That scandal exposed an ethically tenuous relationship in which bloggers received corporate swag, and in some instances vacation junkets, in exchange for favorable, seemingly honest reviews and "content" mentions. And the brands are not shy about it. Jill Beraud, a marketing officer at PepsiCo, is on record saying that courting the mommy bloggers is a long-term effort.

The Federal Trade Commission has responded by proposing that all bloggers and the corporations that sponsor them be held accountable for the validity of the claims they make. The agency is updating its guidelines on endorsements and testimonials for first time since 1980. Good luck with that. And by that I mean assigning a task force to tackle First Amendment issues and police the entire digital universe to see if someone's passionate Huggies recommendation on MommyBloggest.com is on the up and up.

Meanwhile, members of Congress alarmed by the creeping ubiquity of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing (the United States and New Zealand are the only developed nations to permit such ads) have taken steps to rein in the people who bombard us with ads that are often accompanied by 30 seconds of legal copy about side effects including death and blindness.

In 50 years we've gone from loosely regulated advertising based on the art of persuasion, to more regulated, perfectly legal and often spectacular ads based on the art of engagement, to anything goes.

As a result, it is increasingly difficult to determine what is authentic. It is impossible to tell if a cool video clip is just that or an ad for a car, sneaker or cellphone. Is that really an environmentally responsible vehicle, or is the message pure greenwash? Is that really an unaffiliated "concerned citizen" stepping up to speak at a town hall meeting with Rockwellian authenticity, or a paid party hack who heeded the call of a social media networking blitz?

I recently spoke about all of this with a former colleague and current advertising creative director. "Eventually," he said, "the Internet always reveals the truth." The question is, when the messages come at us at the speed of light, many thousands of times a day, can it or anyone reveal it fast enough?

At its core, advertising is a tension between art, commerce and ethics. With time, consumers, brands and the law make adjustments and the balances shift. Which brings us back to 1962, and Don Draper. Would his contemporary self approve of mommy bloggers and pharma spam? Or would the man who in one episode frowned with disapproval at Doyle Dane Bernbach's revolutionary "Think Small" print ad for Volkswagen evolve and become a proponent of ethical, engaging ads?

For an answer, cue the DVR to Season One, Episode Six -- skip the ads -- when a beatnik says to Draper: "You work in advertising. . . . How do you sleep at night?"

The Mad Man's response: "On a bed made of money."


James P. Othmer is a former advertising executive and the author of the forthcoming book "Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet."

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