Do we know where we're heading?

The recent years for advertising have not been bright ones. Budgets are tighter than ever and result expectations are higher than usual. Some of this can be seen in the surge of PR vs. Advertising, which was prominent with the release of Al Ries and Laura Ries book "The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR". There have been "ambient media" crazes. And yet none of it has seemed to solve the problem. PR cannot stand on it's own. Ambient media can work, but in specific situations. So then what?

With the invention and growing popularity of TiVO and similar products, there has been a return to the glory days of product placement and sponsorships, extremely common in the early days of radio and television. (Not that product placement ever went away, but its use has increased in recent years). And now, as if that's not enough, marketers are now pressing for product placement in magazine text.

Any sort of product-placement deals in magazines would rather blatantly violate the industry's accepted rules. According to guidelines of the American Society of Magazine Editors, ad messages and ad pages should be "distinctly different from the publication's normal layout." One conceivable exception is for special advertising sections, but these sections must be "clearly and conspicuously identified as a message paid for by advertisers."

Matthew Spahn, director of media planning at Sears, Roebuck & Co "spoke of "media partners working in much less traditional ways, that go way beyond just buying ad pages or buying spots. It's more about integration of the product, and becoming a part of the story line, in ways that readers or viewers will still be interested in consuming that material." He admitted he was not fully sure what the magazine equivalent of, say, Sears' deal and appearances in ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition might look like, but expressed dissatisfaction with magazines' attempts to play in this space. "They still think in terms of advertorials," which, he said, "doesn't feel like part of the fabric" of editorial."

The stance of Mr. Spahn and other advertisers seems to be that it doesn't matter if the value of the magazine (or the product/service of the advertiser) is compromised by attempting to become a part of the "fabric" of the editorial.

Obviously, it's easier and less abrasive to blur the lines a bit in a fashion or entertainment magazine than in a news magazine. But even then, when the beauty editor of Cosmo recommends X Brand Hair Gel, is it because it's the best, or is it because Brand X Hair Gel paid X amount to get mentioned in the editorial? If you look in your dictionary (mine happens to be a Merriam Webster), "editorial" is defined as "an article giving the views of the editors or publishers". So then what happens to the views and reputations of the editors or publishers if they are paid to have opinions? Definitely leaves room for a fall from grace for journalists (which are already seen by many to have lost some of their integrity). The very meaning of the editorial loses its significance if advertisements become "a part of the fabric" of the editorial as Mr. Sphan wishes them to be.

"There's certainly a spirit of cooperation within our magazines, and a willingness to consider new ideas. But there's also a line drawn between the editorial and the commercial," said Time Inc. Editorial Director John Huey in a brief statement prepared for Ad Age. "Crossing the line is not good for the reader. It's not good for the brand. And it's not good, in the end, for the advertiser. The notion that 'everybody else is doing it' is not a compelling argument to us." (But, again, the line is sometimes elusive. An executive at Southern Living, part of Time Inc.'s Southern Progress unit, admitted in a 2002 Wall Street Journal article that the title brought advertisers into some magazine-planning meetings.)

An editor in chief elsewhere put the commercial argument of church and state in more blunt terms. "Without a visceral relationship with the reader, it's not going to work," this editor said. "Don't be getting in the middle of that" with product placement. "My reader's gonna say, 'What's his [expletive] for?'"

Both these editors bring up extremely important points. What happens to the brand for the publication and for the advertiser when the public feels that they are being deceived? Most likely a loss of readership and drop in sales. Especially potent to the news magazines, there is a line between reporting and spin. Granted, the media as a whole as taken on the role of spin-doctors much more of late, causing distrust with the public. (See fake reporters for the White House, journalists making stuff up and publishing it as news, etc).

Taking this concept even further, IntelliTXT, a service that matches the keywords in news stories on the web to specific, related ads has entered the fray.

The words are highlighted in green, and when readers move mouse cursors onto the words, links appear. For example, on one automotive-news site, the word "vehicle" is linked to a pitch for car insurance.

Journalists and analysts seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the service, called IntelliTXT, which has the potential to make online advertising more efficient. Others are worried that it creates a potential ethical conflict for journalists, or at least the appearance of one.

"Journalism is not as trusted as it once was. ... Credibility is important," said Doug Feaver, president of the Online News Association and editor of, which doesn't use the IntelliTXT service. To maintain credibility, journalists need to make sure there's a clear delineation between ads and news, Feaver said.

"Personally, I think we need to keep the lines as clear and distinct as possible."

IntelliTXT's creators say their model is less intrusive than pop-up ads or even search ads, because readers don't see them unless they want to. Besides, if someone is reading a product review or a travel article, chances are that afterward, they'll do a search related to the story.

But this still means that consumers who are looking for information are being bombarded with unwanted yelps and screams for their attention. This, of course, is an issue that has plagued advertisers throughout the ages.

Recently, Google's Gmail caused quite a stir, before it even formally launched. Concerns about privacy and the ability of the software to generate targeted advertisements prompted a California senator to take action.

But the real question in all of this is what do the consumers think about the advertisements? Do they feel that it is crossing a line?

As reported in the NY Times, J. Walker Smith, president at Yankelovich Partners, a market research company, conducted a survey on consumer's perceptions toward advertising and "found negative perceptions about advertising have substantially increased."

The survey findings are significant because industry executives are frantically searching for ways to forge more emotional connections with fractious, and fractionated, consumers that differ from conventional methods like running 30-second television commercials and print advertisements.

The risk posed by some of the new approaches, like placing sponsored brand messages or products in the entertainment content of programs or publications, is that consumers will consider such selling strategies even more obnoxious.

"People have a love-hate relationship with advertising," said Mr. Smith, who offered a preview of the survey in an interview before the AAAA conference began. "But a far greater percentage are saying they have concerns, primarily related to its growing obtrusiveness."

Another survey by Dynamic Logic sheds more light on what consumers think about advertising (and also might more useful in regards to this issue) by examining attitudes towards ads within different media, ranking them using "very positive", "somewhat positive," "neutral", "somewhat negative", and "very negative."
The results the Advertising Reaction Study of look like this (number 1 is most positive and number 10 is least positive):
1. Newspaper ads
2. Magazine ads
3. Radio ads
4. Billboard/outdoor ads,
5. TV ads,
6. Web site ads
7. Opt-in email ads
8. Direct mail (postal)
9. Non-opt-in email ads (spam)
10. Telemarketing.

It's really no surprise that telemarketing and spam ended up on the bottom of the list. But I wonder what an attempt to blur the lines of advertising and editorial will do to the top ranking mediums? Would they stay at the top, or would they result in a change of attitude?

The study also looks at intrusiveness, frequency, ad/edit ratio, clutter, targeting, and creativity concepts within each of the media. Overall, the media that allows for more entertaining and compelling creative keeps consumers interested, like the visuals of print, the copy of radio, and the combined visuals and copy of TV.

"The creative is what's going to win them or lose them," notes Christine Goodman, marketing director, Dynamic Logic. "Entertaining and visually compelling creative in any marketing medium tends to keep consumers interested."

Trying to force people to read ads or imposing them on readers will only create apathy and a feeling of obtrusiveness. If the current advertising environment is having trouble connecting with consumers, there are some possible reasons and solutions. One is over-saturation. Media buys lately seem to favor frequency, which can cause a feeling of obtrusiveness. Robert Fleege said, "Creativity beats frequency anytime." And William Bernbach said, "In communications, familiarity breeds apathy." This is easily solved by better managing ad space, either through better or more creative media buys, and not just getting the cheapest package.

Another is poor creative. I cannot say for sure if some of it is the economic climate (fewer people at companies playing multiple roles-some of whom are in marketing positions that should not be until they learn more about it)resulting in less creative/engaging advertisements, or if this is just a trend that is taking over. There seems to be a lack in understanding the role that marketers are supposed to be playing. In the recent years there hasn't been anything really "new" to come out of the ad biz. I think that the time for change is coming. At least that's the feeling I'm getting from the articles and books I've been reading. Agencies like CP+B have been taking the reins of bringing back great advertising and marketing with campaigns for IKEA, Mini USA, and most recently Burger King. They have started on the path of rethinking traditional media in both aspects of creative and planning. They are definitely causing a stir in the ad world. As Leo Burnett said, "If you don't get noticed, you don't have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or without tricks."

The marketers who feel that they need to exploit consumers by blurring the lines between advertising and editorial seem to have lost control of their marketing plans, or at least that's the impression I'm left with. They forget their "integrity" and the relevance that they need to keep consumers and attract new ones.

Since average person is fed propaganda from their news and from their leaders, they are probably going to expect the same from advertisers and marketers. But there's not reason for marketers/advertisers to be as sleazy as politicians. In some respects, I think that the average citizen does expect some sort of shadiness from the government. But why do marketers or advertisers need to be shady- there's no "national security" reasoning for them, etc. Deception is a bubble that will pop at some point. People do get found out for their sleaze eventually, even if it's not at the time it occurs. Which makes it even more dangerous for businesses to get involved in that - most politicians will be out of office within 8 years or so - and the goal for a business, usually, is to stick around as long as possible. Lies or deception in business can have a more resounding effect when the truth makes its way to the consumer. As Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart said, "There is only one boss: the customer. And he can fire everybody in the company, from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money elsewhere."

There's a quote from Howard Gossage that sums the whole thing up rather well, "Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it's an ad."

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