The View from the Tar Pits

[October 6, 2009]

Predicting the death of advertising has practically become a cottage industry. Google calls up 2,780,000 resultsfor the topic, dating back as far as 1999. Citing everything from smaller commissions to the rise of social networking, people seem downright anxious to kick the dead emperor.

As always, it’s an ideology thing. Question the alarm bells and you might as well lie down in the tar pits next to a triceratops. But this is exactly the kind of all-or-nothing thinking that drove American automakers into receivership.

Ironically, once you scratch the surface, you realize the doomsayers aren’t really talking about advertising. They’re obsessing over a decline in recall rates for TV commercials. Excuse me, but advertising is not about TV. Besides, maybe TV spots simply aren’t as memorable as they used to be, precisely because they’re shot under the baleful eye of knuckle-rapping statisticians.

Never mind, the issue isn’t critical, because TV isn’t advertising. TV is just a medium. Advertising is about brands—and people are more brand-conscious than ever. I mean, when was the last time one of your friends stored their music in anything else but an iPod®?

Besides, if traditional advertising were so moribund, a trip to BestBuy would already be a nightmare. “Should I take the black box three rows down,” you’d wonder, “or the one on the top left? They all look the same…” Out in the real world, brands are everywhere. And they’re everywhere because advertising works.

Yes, things are changing. The social Web gives consumers a new voice. And sometimes they use that voice to complain about advertising. Why not? There have always been ugly, manipulative and stupid advertisements. “Before the revolution” one heard these complaints, offline, every day of the week.

But the issue has never been whether people like advertising. What matters is what happens in supermarkets, showrooms or digital forums. There you’ll hear people comparing the very product benefits and features they picked up from TV, radio, print, outdoor, retail or digital advertising.

Claiming that advertising is dead due to social media is like claiming that screwdrivers have made hammers obsolete. Brands have always been built with a variety of media. As I see it, people who insist that social media marketing is anything else but advertising are just whistling in the dark. When a popular blogger starts weaving product placements into every post, I doubt people feel any better about it than they do about Tony the Tiger on the tube.

Of course, saying “advertising is dead” is a lot easier than reimagining advertising for a digital age. But thinking it is more than misguided. Reductive thinking like this kills Innovation on sight—by demoting Strategy to a match game of ossified dos and don’ts.

Until, in the end, the only thing threatened with extinction is our collective imagination.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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