Microwave Mentality part three: Advertising is dead, and other unoriginal ideas.

"Congratulate me, Joe! I just sold the business to the Resor boys. They don't know it, but the advertising agency business has seen its best days!"

I want you to let this sink in for a second. The quote above came from J Walter Thompson. In 1916.

Since the dawn of advertising, many people have scrambled up the top of the heap, King- Of-The-Hill-style, in an effort to be the first to proclaim their own industry dead.

Why? For one thing, it's because we're like crows. We're distracted by shiny objects. New media. New technology. And if it isn't new, we rename it so it sounds new. TV spots become "films," even though they're nothing more than TV spots on youtube. Copywriting is now "content writing," whatever that means.

Anything old therefore must be outdated, dumb and irrelevant. The irony is most of those people on top of the mountain this week, have a complete and utter lack of historical understanding. Their microwave mentality is akin to having tunnel vision, with no rearview mirror. They think they're the first to make declarations like this, and as J. Walter Thompson proves above, they're far from it.

Again and again, some new marketing guru/ninja/pirate/assassin/psychic comes along trying in earnest to erase a century's worth of advertising and the creative minds who made them. Again and again, we're told our profession is dead as if this is some new thought. It isn't. And what's more-- it's wrong.

Of course we need to learn new media. Of course, our society has evolved. Of course the nature of the business has changed in that we have more bells and whistles and forms of communication lines we never had before. But to sit there and try to wriggle out of the fact that whatever we want to call it this month, we are still selling shit for a living, is to lie to yourself.

More importantly, to discount the first thinkers in the business who laid the infrastructure through their creativity, strategic thinking and psychological understanding of the consumer should be cause for shame. And what's worse, there are some in the industry who don't even know who these are to begin with. It's ridiculous. Those who don't know history are doomed to parrot it back.

Case in point:

Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is brand image.

Sounds like something you might have retweeted recently, right? Except it was David Ogilvy who said it. A man who arguably had his heyday during the 60's. I'm pointing this out not to insult your intelligence, but to help the guru/ninja/pirate/assassin/psychics out there who don't know who he is.

So back to the point. Advertising is dead. Right? If that's the case, how many advertising agencies have closed this year? I ask this rhetorically, not knowing the answer, and yet knowing the answer is "not enough to justify the doom and gloom scenario."

The problem with this particular form of microwave mentality is that this particular outlook has a tendency to backfire.

Take this CNN blog post form 2011, entitled "Advertising is dead and so is the customer." This was posted during the Cannes festival and comes with a video as well.

In the article by anchor and correspondent Max Foster, there are the usual generalizations declaring advertising dead with quotes from unnamed sources backing up this notion.
As a piece of journalism, it's a joke. As a blog post, it's still a joke. Take this quote:

There are brands who have achieved the holy grail of building long-lasting, deep relationships with "people," and they are the celebrity brands. That’s why a Jonas Brother, will.i.am and Pharrell Williams are all here and the centre of attention. These are pop stars who have customers/fans/people so loyal they do not feel like they are buying anything. They have bought into the brand, but aren’t buying it.

Oh really? Then where are will.i.am's, Pharrell Williams and the Jonas Brothers' royalty checks coming from? Surely people are buying their music, right? And going to their concerts and seeing their shows and buying their t-shirts and other merchandise which comes affixed with a price?

Now let's watch the video from Cannes that accompanies the article. You'll have to it through the pre-roll commercial of course, since, you know, advertising is dead and all.

Here, we are treated to advertising executives opining on the same advertising is dead territory. Keep in mind this is in Cannes, during the Cannes award show in which the very same people who spit on advertising's grave gladly accept lions for creating work in a so-called dead field of industry.

One particular segment highlights the way this idea backfires. We hear Ali Ali, co-founder of Elephant Cairo, who did those fantastic Panda cheese ads, say that big agency dinosaurs and small agency dinosaurs alike are threatened.

But in the same segment, Mr Ali says "I think TV is still the most effective medium we have…after the revolution 25 million Egyptians are now online so that will change quickly I think, but still, all our clients depend predominately on TV, which is why we as an agency focus on TV very much…"

Understand, I am not a Luddite here. But to declare advertising as we know it 'dead,' is simply not accurate. People still have TV's and we still make TV commercials. We also put them online and congratulate ourselves because they aren't on TV and somehow this is less of a "sell," and more about fostering a life-long relationship between fan boys and super fans and the Brand evangelicals and…"

Tell me, can a brand spend a lifelong relationship? Can a Facebook Like increase the bottom line? I'm sorry to be so ugly truth here, but clients kinda want to sell products. It's nice they're all BFF's with their engagement super fans who are tweeting the virtues of the content and whatnot but unless they're getting around to buying the product it's just one more big wank in a series of wanks.

I'll put it simply, in a grow the fuck up and eat your peas kind of way:
You can't spend engagement.

Beyond this sadistic notion of our tendency to want to be the first to throw the baby out with the bathwater, what really bothers me about this collective distancing is that we are now letting facts and figures and statistics, rather than intuition, heart and gut feeling motivate our thinking. How can you call yourself a creative and turn a blind eye to what makes you create?

This article from the Harvard Business Review falls into the same gobbledygook trap. On one hand they say traditional advertising is dead. They say buyers aren't paying much attention. Guess what: buyers never paid attention. They never liked advertising. No matter what we do to attract their attention they aren't about to start. That's why the job is so fun. It's not just makin' ads. It's problem solving, starting with the biggest problem: how to make people give a crap. And this is age old stuff here.

Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece North By Northwest came out in 1959. Even then a piece of dialogue from Eva Marie Saint describes Advertising Executive Cary Grant as being in a business of "selling people things they don't need."

And yet the Harvard Business Review hammers on, citing study after study we're supposed to swallow at face value. To which I ask: Since when did creatives like focus groups?

The article goes on to say "traditional marketing isn't really working anywhere." It does however, believe the answer lies in community marketing. They advocate this:

Companies should position their social media efforts to replicate as much as possible this community-oriented buying experience. In turn, social media firms, such as Facebook, should become expert at enabling this. They can do this by expanding the buyer's network of peers who can provide trustworthy information and advice based on their own experience with the product or service.

Sounds good doesn't it? It's good old, "if I have a great experience I'll tell my friends and then they'll tell their friends," etc. Highly effective, right? It must be. Otherwise, companies wouldn't be making up for this lack of effectiveness by buying fake reviews on Yelp. Oh wait. It certainly never happens on Amazon either.

Seems the more things are declared dead, the more the new big thing starts to stink. And it doesn't matter how many statistic you gin up to try and prove effectiveness. Because you can't prove it.

Quoth Ogilvy once again:

I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.

In the end, we can spend years arguing about what makes an effective ad or a good ad, or a creative ad, or if an ad can ever motivate someone to buy a product until kingdom come. And we should. Because those are interesting things to debate.

To suggest that the industry itself is six feet under? That's the same old snake oil sales pitch, coming from the same self-loathing wizards who want to sell you the same shit sandwich, but with a different wrapper.

The media has changed. Yes. We now have more ways to reach people. Yes. But the fundamentals have not changed. You still need to entertain. You still need to touch someone emotionally. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, etc. And finally, you still need them to maybe think about opening their wallets. Much as we have disdain for that last bit-- that's what advertising is, was and will always be about.

And may it live forever.


Previous posts --

Microwave mentality part one.
Microwave mentality part two: All the news fit to gank

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Kat Smith's picture

Thanks for writing this series. "just one more big wank in a series of wanks"

kidsleepy's picture

Anytime. :)

Jokes aside, I'm by no means discounting the importance of social media as being a barometer of what any particular demographic thinks. It is hella important. but merely saying "what up! @insertusername" ain't enough to keep a company going. Social media is merely one line of communication in a long line, like tv, print, digital advertising, etc. But it isn't a replacement for something. if it were, we wouldn't still be getting coupons in the mail, there wouldn't be pre-roll spots on Vevo videos, and your local fast food joint wouldn't bother hanging up point of sale ads in its windows.
Know what I mean?

Dabitch's picture

We don't have "relationships" with brands on facebook. We have flings. We like something for the moment and all other times we're like "get off my feed". Just click it and forget it. Or set it and forget it with lots of hysterical fake audience participation.

kidsleepy's picture

Exactly. The brand evangelism theory is as ridiculous as the phrase.

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