James R. Rosenfield

May 2004

The world's biggest advertisers and agencies met recently for a round of back-scratching, back-stabbing, and breast-beating. Envision, if you will, several huge pythons swallowing themselves and each other.

It was the annual conference of the 4A's, the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Featured at the April 2004 event was a presentation by J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich, a leading market research firm.

Predictably, Smith told the assembled throngs that people dislike, or, at best, are ambivalent towards advertising.

No news there. That's how people have always felt. But advertising's cumulative power, which is to create the consumer society, is unaffected by attitude. Advertising remains devastatingly effective in making you sick, then selling you the cure, as Marshall McLuhan observed.

Most of the statistics cited by Smith are yawn-inducing. I'm quoting an article from the April 14, 2004 New York Times : Fifty four percent of survey respondents said they "avoid buying products that overwhelm them with advertising and marketing." (Oh sure, until they get a coupon in the mail!)

Sixty percent said their opinion of advertising "is much more negative than just a few years ago." It's always been negative. Why should anyone like advertising? It's a tax you pay to be entertained. People like advertising when it's smart and funny, or when they see an ad for a product they're in the market for or have recently bought. But to like is not really very important. It's counter-intuitive and drives Madison Avenue crazy, but no one has ever been able to correlate "likeability" with anything substantive, such as sales or market share. In fact, advertising history is littered with the corpses of "likeable" campaigns that failed to move products.

Sixty five percent said they believed that they "are constantly bombarded with too much" advertising. I'll bet people said the same thing back when there was a mere fraction of today's messages.

Sixty nine percent said they "are interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing." This refers mostly to the Internet, but this, perhaps, is the beginning of a change, along with four other phenomena:

1) Internet anti-advertising tools. At first glance analogous to zapping TV commercials by hitting the mute button on your remote, or changing channels, there's a leap here, since pop-up stoppers block ads completely. On TV you'll still catch a glimpse, or change to a channel with another commercial, which means advertising can do its job. Any fragment of any ad, however speedy the impression, serves to build the consumer society. (I won't repeat that, but you might, particularly if you're an agency dealing with a skeptical client.)

2) Spam , which people hate passionately, for good reason. A tidal wave of garbage, spam has darkened attitudes towards advertising. It just keeps on coming. It's ugly, deceptive, and obscene. It makes people feel out of control. Result: A dislike that virally infects people's feelings towards any and all commercial messages. Spam, by the way, is one of the reasons for the continuing health of direct mail, at least in the U.S. If it weren't for spam, email marketing would by this time have replaced at least some of what direct mail does. That was what pundits foretold back in the late 1990's. But there's always a joker in the deck when it comes to technology predictions, and spam is one of the biggest and nastiest jokers ever.

3) A ubiquitous and smothering corporate presence , particularly in the guise of sponsorships. There was once a time when a sports arena was simply called "Tigers Stadium." That's long gone. Nowadays, you can't enter a public exhibition venue, whether sporting or cultural, without running into a corporation. On the one hand, companies are practicing a degree of civic virtue when they sponsor an art exhibit. And business sponsorship of culture was already old when the Medici made it their specialty in Renaissance Florence. On the other hand, the "Nokia Sugar Bowl" (an annual football game in New Orleans ) is a sort of omnipresent reminder that life in the early 21 st Century can't be lived without continuous obeisance to Mammon.

4) "Stealth" advertising . Best example: product placements on TV or in the movies. When the hero cradles a bottle of Coke, you can bet that's not accidental. People resent stealth advertising when they catch on to it, because no one likes being fooled. Consumers think (incorrectly, alas) that when they know something is an ad, they can protect themselves against it. There's no protection with stealth advertising. You might say, Can anyone be so naïve as to watch a handsome actor drink a Coke in a movie, identify positively with the actor, and go out and buy a Coke? Well, the answer is yes, but it's not naiveté, it's manipulation.

5) The sheer vulgarity of so much mainstream TV advertising , as typified by the bozo 'n' bimbo beer commercials infesting the airwaves everywhere. Agencies love to target the 18 to 34 male demographic. If these young guys are anywhere near as vapid as portrayed in commercials, the future of the world is questionable indeed. Or think about car advertising, now heavily SUV oriented in the U.S. : vulgar messages promoting vulgar vehicles that hurt other people and the environment.

As a result of these phenomena, I suspect, several interesting results pop up in the Yankelovich survey:

--Sixty one percent said they agreed that the amount of advertising and marketing to which they are exposed is "out of control." That's a very strong statement, since control is one of the primary psychological issues of early 21 st Century life. When something is "out of control," things are very, very bad. If only 10% of the 61% took action, and if this number were projected across the U.S. population, marketers would feel consumer wrath big-time!

--Forty five percent of respondents said the amount of advertising and marketing they were exposed to "detracts from the experience of everyday life." This is also a strong statement. Can it be that the supposed harbinger of happiness, the siren's voice promising salvation through goods and services, is now beginning to sound dissonant? That's probably too much to hope for. But to echo what I just said, if only 10% of the 45% decided against that next unnecessary purchase, it would have a huge impact on American business.

--Most startling of all: 33 percent said they "would be willing to have a slightly lower standard of living to live in a society without marketing and advertising." WOW!! I suspect the people surveyed didn't know that the advertising community always argues that advertising is good because it fuels demand, which in turn fuels an ever-increasing standard of living. This research finding walks right up to Madison Avenue and sticks one of their key raisons d'etre where the sun doesn't shine!

All of this is just talk, of course, and market research is a questionable pseudo-science at best. I mean, if you approached a person who supposedly would be willing to lower his standard of living, and said "OK Jack, you won't have to look at ads, but you need to swap your big TV for a smaller one," I'm not sure Jack would do this. Nonetheless, I think something significant is happening here.

Perhaps a tipping point is about to be reached. Omnipresent marketing and advertising highlight business' endless hunger to wring every penny out of every consumer. Business may be just as omnivorous without the endless ads, but the endless ads remind everyone that your car company, bank, or telecom basically want to suck your blood. We just might be reaching a point where consumers are saying "Enough! I am a human being, not a consumption machine."

Do I really believe this? Probably not, but I'm hopeful. Does this mean, by the way, that I'm anti-advertising and anti-marketing? Not at all. It just means I'm pro-human.



© 2008, James R. Rosenfield. All rights reserved. Use by permission only.