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How AI Threatens Advertising And Brands

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How AI Threatens Advertising And Brands

Given my dislike of the ‘death’ theme that haunts every possible marketing moment currently, the likelihood of my agreeing with a report entitled ‘The End of Advertising As We Know It’ was slim.

The fact that the report was written by Forrester, one of the few firms to understand properly and objectively the intersection of marketing and tech, did slightly re-balance things. But not enough to avoid the very loud “harrumph” I uttered as I read a summary of the report last week.

For as long as we have had advertising there have been ex-agency personnel and futurologists predicting the imminent demise of the ignoble profession. A Google search for the “end of advertising as we know it” will reveal a best-selling book from 2000, a series of inane conference presentations from 1990s and, more recently, a whole raft of tech-based attacks that portray traditional communications as being a dead marketing man walking.

Quite clearly advertising has evolved tremendously in the past 20 years. A surprising amount of it also hasn’t changed at all by the way, but we don’t talk about these things in marketing lest we be seen as ‘old-school’ and not sufficiently understanding the startling new world of digital marketing. But change is not what the Forrester report is about. The co-authors are truly dead-set on a prediction that the end is very much nigh.

Aversion To Interruption

The big insight on which Forrester is basing its “declaration” that 2017 is the year that advertising as we know it comes to an end is the increasing intolerance we all have for interruptions. That is, after all, the name for the small uncomfortable corner of experience where advertising lives and occasionally emerges from to occupy your consciousness for a few tantalizing moments of engagement.

Forrester point outs, not without accuracy, that consumers are spending less and less time “doing interruptible things on interruption-friendly devices”. Despite their current domination, Google and Facebook’s model for success is disarmingly old-fashioned. Google makes billions interrupting your search with paid suggestions. Facebook interrupts your social interactions with paid messages. Clearly, once we navigate the issues of brand safety and measurement, the next big bump for digital media is the fact that this is a singularly inappropriate context to try and interrupt a user’s experience for even a second.

The active-finger, multi-screen, double-click world of your smartphone makes it just about the most impossible 10 square inches imaginable to break into and garner attention, let alone drive action. There is a reason that you need to show the average digital display ad to 2,000 people before one of them will click on it.

The great irony of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook ads back in 2007 – in which he too claimed an end to advertising as we knew it and proposed engaging organically with consumers in conversation as equals – was that, although it did not actually work, it was the ideal approach to get past the always-on, never-interrupted digital audiences of the 21st century. It’s ironic because Zuckerberg quickly gave up on organic conversations and opted for an all too familiar model of display advertising, much like the one he had set out to disrupt a few years earlier.

And, of course, not only is the digital consumer pretty much out of bounds from an attention point of view, the device she is using is equally uncooperative. The advent of ad blockers, as Forrester notes, is increasing not because the ads are weak but because any sane human being, given the option of free extinction, will click the ad blocker button in an instant. Whether we want to admit it or not, the ancient technology of interruption sits uncomfortably in the age of digital media.

AI Could Bypass Brands

But before the laughs of the so-called traditional media get too loud, it’s worth noting that the end of interruptions is by no means an exclusively digital phenomenon. As households grow used to smart TVs and DVR content their ability to zip through advertising with expert aplomb grows ever more concerning. Once again technology plays into the consumer’s hands too with an increasing proportion of DVR devices around the world now able to not only pre-record your favorite shows but also re-present them without ads too.

For Forrester the only hope for advertisers is to see the end of interruptions as the end of advertising itself and ship money across town to artificial intelligence (AI) and smart assistants. It recommends that “marketers take billions of dollars out of digital display advertising to make this investment”.

There is something delicious in seeing the big tech disruptors of the 21st century, Facebook and Google, suddenly threatened with a digital disruption of their own. But this recommendation to pull back from digital and go deep into AI seems a knee-jerk one to me – a bit like seeing a gust of wind then rushing off to the supermarket in panic to buy cans of beans and water.

There is a fascinating future appearing on the horizon in which our smart personal assistants handle most of our purchases for us. It’s a scary world for marketers because those smart devices won’t be watching ads but rather using a complex array of calculations and predictive modeling to make the optimum purchase.

Low-involvement consumer decision-making will become a contradiction in terms and with it all the brands and campaigns that populated our early consumer consciousness will fall foul of evolution. If Amazon gets Alexa right the future won’t look anything like the past or present.

It is brands as well as advertising we are talking about. As marketing professor Scott Galloway has recently noted, in the world of proper AI, basic categories could well replace brands in our verbal requests. Let the machine work out which one to get; I just need toothpaste.

And it’s not just average brands that lose out. Google, for all its power and heft, operates a two-step model of consumer information. I search for information on pen refills with Google, then I visit the site and make the purchase. That’s radically more efficient than having to go down to the pen shop and talk to someone about pens for an hour.

But that old pen shop experience is exactly how our children will see our current use of Google. They will laugh as we talk to them about ‘typing’ a request into a ‘search engine’ to find possible pen retailers and ‘clicking’ on the best options. The little black disc on the bookshelf that orders stuff for my future 22-year-old daughter with one verbal command is where things are going.

Disruption Is Slower Than You Think

Before we get completely caught up in all of this, however, let us pause and consider what we know about marketing revolutions. Inevitably, we overestimate the impact of new technologies and we underestimate how long it will take for them to take hold. Forrester appears to be of the belief that it’s time to jump ship now, declare advertising dead and start working on an AI strategy. If we have learned anything thus far in marketing it’s that these revolutions occur with much slower speed than anyone expects.

While it’s headline-grabbing to declare all advertising is over, the truth is that the interruption extinction event only threatens certain media, not others. Yes, it’s a big problem for the agile, mercurial audiences that populate digital media. But while TV is struggling with its own interruption issues the simple laziness and passivity of the TV audience ironically makes it far more immune to the interruption issue.

Many years ago I studied a bunch of families in their own homes and looked at why and how they actually viewed TV advertising. When I finished my research an army of agencies all asked me the same question; which ads pull best? My answer was a disappointment to them. It was clear from thousands of hours of watching families watching advertising that the ads themselves were a relatively tiny force in the overall advertising equation.

Only agencies would think their ads were somehow the main factor in driving attention. The real, ethnographic truth was that a host of more mundane factors explained why a family did or did not pay attention to ads. Where they with someone else they could chat to in the break? Did they need to use the bathroom? Were they exhausted? Could they find the remote to change the channel?

All these years later, the fundamental quotidian exhaustion of a TV audience remains its biggest strength. It might look great to have young, eager audiences devouring digital at 400 clicks a second. But try getting them to watch a 15-second spot.

When butts sink into couches across the US and turn on a TV, however, they do so with an inbuilt ability to accept interruption. The slightly overweight and exhausted army that make up most TV audiences might not look good on a brochure for the National Association of Television Program Executives or NATPE but they have one certain advantage over the young, hip trendies whizzing through hyperspace: they can’t be forced to change the channel because the remote is way over there. So they endure.

And then there are all those other media that no-one mentions anymore. Both cinema advertising and outdoor are almost immune to the interruption issue because they intrude at such a gigantic, macro level they look set to avoid the issue almost entirely. It’s pretty hard to ignore a billboard when you are driving past it.

The more I think about outdoor advertising and the renewed lease of creative and client life it is getting from becoming digitized, the more bullish I become about this most ancient of advertising forms.

So is advertising as we know it about to end? No, it is surely not. What is going to happen is that all those hot little startups like Google and The Facebook that grew and came to enjoy the fruits of global success are now going to experience the other side of the sword. That’s the part where young, arrogant tech heads spy weakness and money in equal measure and spend the rest of their youth in a basement building something to disrupt the former disruptors.

But Google can rest easy for a while longer. Advertising as we know it may be changing – I’d argue it has not stopped changing since its invention – but it’s not dead or dying or about to be replaced by a black disc. And even if it is, how do consumers get to know about the AI in the first place? Surely someone will have to make an ad to start the revolution.

This thought piece is featured courtesy of Marketing Week, the United Kingdom’s leading marketing publication.

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