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Why Ads Don’t Matter Anymore

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Why Ads Don’t Matter Anymore

We have become accustomed to tuning out advertising and marketing messages because we don’t like interruptions in our habit-formed lives. And we’re skeptical of the messages ads bring us. In fact, most of us feel ads don’t bring much value to our lives, just more distraction.

There’s another reason we tune out ads. Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, explained this to me in a Skype chat. Frank spent many years as a writer at Wired magazine. Many of his pieces were on the intersections of media, technology, and human behavior. There is no better person to talk to about this than Frank.

On why ads don’t matter as much anymore, Frank said, “The main reason is people are so much more media savvy than they used to be and it’s not hard to figure out that advertisers are simply trying to advertise.” Frank Rose noted how the power that technology gives to users reshapes their behavior. We can see it in our day-to-day lives. How many of you reading this book watch live television anymore? Do you own a DVR that gives you the capability to fast-forward through the ads? Do you even pay cable companies to access their content from a cable converter box, or are you a cord cutter? How many of you click on the banner ads, search ads, Facebook ads, or any other ad on your mobile device?

Rose is right: the world we live in is focused on how we personalize our experiences, which inevitably leads to rapid withdrawal from the interruptive advertising format. As he put it, If you look back at the history of marketing, which came about in the mid-century in the 1950s with the rise of mass media, people were not very sophisticated. The whole 1960s approach to marketing is obsolete. . . . People are so much more sophisticated largely because of the Internet. The Internet has called into question the whole thirty-second spot. People had to watch those because they had no choice back in the day. You only had three channels and limited options. People don’t want clutter. The whole point of marketing now is moving toward creating messages that people want to share with others.

Nevertheless, Rose said, organizations aren’t systemically ready for disruptive marketing. No matter how many articles you read about digital, social, or mobile marketing in Advertising Age, Adweek, Digiday, or some marketing blog, conventional marketing is the norm. And the data backs it up.

In a study, the market research firm eMarketer reports that most big brands still put heavy emphasis on creating thirty-and sixty- second television spots, even though there are many other options that would get more traction. According to that same study, TV ad spending is forecast to be in the $75 billion range by 2017.

According to Rose, Interruption is something people will try to avoid at all costs and it’s not effective for the advertiser. It’s a completely different scenario but for some reason many people in business haven’t acknowledged this. These are the same people who said the Internet was a fad during the dotcom era of the early 2000s and they still hold power in business. There’s that mindset that is prevalent in the residue of the marketing community. To me that is a recipe for failure, but what do you do instead?

What you do instead is exactly what Rose was trying to answer in a program he runs at Columbia University’s School of the Arts digital storytelling lab. Rose was quick to point out a trend he identified years ago:

“One thing that is interesting to me is that “storytelling” was not even on many people’s lips when I wrote my book. If you think about it, journalists are storytellers. . . . When I worked at Wired magazine I wrote about anything and everything at . . . the intersection of media and technology. I did a few pieces which led me to realize there are all sorts of people who worked in TV who went to video game companies and then went to work in web video. This cross-pollination . . . among all three of these industries is what created a whole new way we interact with others through stories.”

Rose’s program is at the cutting edge of the new norm, which isn’t storytelling, but what he has dubbed the “enchanted state.”

The New Norm: The Enchanted State

Frank Rose pointed to Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Boyd notes something that many in physics would admire. When the world is noisy, the way to cancel out the noise is actually through additional noise. Not noise at a higher decibel level, but noise at the same level as the original noise, only on a different wavelength. Boyd dubs this technique “the conspiratorial whisper,” and he notes, “When everyone is shouting, the way to get people’s attention is to whisper.”

Frank Rose added, “The current taste for immersion is largely a by-product of the digital age. Video games and the Internet have taught people to be active participants rather than passive observers; just looking is no longer enough. People expect to dive in, and companies as disparate as Disney, Facebook, and Burberry have been scrambling to oblige them. But although digital technology seems to encourage it, immersion can be triggered by almost any form of media, starting with books and theater. People have been immersing themselves in stories for centuries.”

This new normal has not been kind to conventional marketers. Many still trust customer journeys, rational decision-making purchase models, inbound marketing tactics (email, search, social), and noisy ads as the biggest drivers for their campaigns. David Zweig notes in his book Invisibles that this “noisy world” may originate from the current work ethic, which is rooted in using our brashness to draw attention to ourselves. “We’ve been taught that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that to not just get ahead, but to matter, to exist even, we must make ourselves seen and heard.”

Rose, too, felt this is the wrong way to approach marketing. He mentioned the radical swing of companies that aren’t employing attention-grabbing techniques or tactics. There is a bubbling trend just beginning to make headway in marketing circles. “Some companies let their customers create or string their own stories together,” he said. “It makes people feel like they have ownership.”

To take it a step further, disruptive marketers are heading up some companies on the radical fringe that go beyond their own creative assets and intellectual property, and allow customers to piece together the stories. In this “enchanted state,” the stories may begin to even include competitors’ assets so customers can begin to create mashups or bootleg stories.

Yet much of this new paradigm seems beyond the reach of a compartmentalized marketing department conditioned to create a story that allows it to push and control brand narratives and value propositions. This new form of storytelling makes sense. It’s classically disruptive in its nature because it derives from the world of tech more than from the world of advertising.

Learn more about how to keep your brand relevant in the 21st Century in my new book Disruptive Marketing.

The Blake Project Can Help: Disruptive Brand Strategy Workshop

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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