Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What does advertising really mean to us?

Having grown up as Gen-Xer, it’s been fascinating to witness the transformation of media in everyday life. It’s crazy to think that when I graduated from college in 1994, I didn’t have a mobile phone or an email address, and any ‘computing’ I did happened on a funky, bulky box that ran on MS-DOS. It’s even crazier when I realize that the Internet has officially been around for 40 years (3 years longer than me).

In looking back at my own unconventional and sinuous career path, I’m actually glad I was somewhat slow to adopt some of these technologies early on because it forced me (by default) to make a commitment to understanding, and contributing to, the integrity of a story. When I was creating on-air promos at the TV network, for example, I would often fight with executives over copy lines that lasted 5 seconds or less. I thought that my tiny little contribution to the passive viewership of America would somehow shine brighter because of a few word choices. And perhaps it did. Or maybe my eggshell ego deluded me into thinking otherwise.

Or maybe I just took this for granted. I gave up. I let myself get beat down by the system. But I also didn’t have the benefit of technology to tap into the consciousness of those who shared my common interest, those who could somehow acknowledge or validate my efforts.

Today, this is a double-edged sword. As much as I am an advocate of the digital revolution, I also believe that advertising has used technology as an excuse to defray our thinking and persuade us that we need things that ultimately don’t matter.

The problem with advertising is that it has evolved into a discipline that often presupposes a need for manipulation, not meaning, and meaning is sculpted by conversation.

The problem with media is that they are often self-serving, despite the fact that people crave sociable content that doesn’t confine them to channels. The hubris of media confines brands to the products they represent; case and point, you can sell a product any number of times and not have a successful brand.

We live in a sell culture. As long as a I can remember, we always have. But what happened to the iconic experiences from our youth – the Mikeys and the Cal Worthingtons and the Smith Barneys of the world – people or experiences that we could actually relate to, no matter how odd or funny or mildly endearing or even silly they were, and affinities we developed that stood for something apart from the brands being spoken for?

Further, even if some of those icons exist today, where do we possibly think we can go if conversations, by nature, must live beyond campaigns?

You see, there is great power in advertising, just as there is great power in technology. I’m talking about real power – the kind that is not only transformative, but ubiquitous. But in order for us to bridge the gap between delivering messages and creating conversations, we need to create real meaning – a higher purpose – behind our purchases. It starts with the little things that we’ve done in an edit bay, a programming bullpen or a conference room – the same things that must be done for, and must be accessible to, the people who consume media or buy the products we sell to them. It will continue to evolve with initiatives that aim to empower people in making this world a better place.

If this sounds lofty, then so be it. Our cynicism has only inhibited our desire to innovate. And to affect change.

This is why I build social technologies and help brands understand the value of connecting all the dots of their outreach. And this is why many of my colleagues – whether they are planners, buyers, designers, creative directors, developers or operators – do what they do despite all the fragmentation, fussing and hype that we are exposed to on a daily basis.

Bottom line: we are making a return to the truth, and harkening back to a time when marketers would hand out flyers at train stations and people would talk about the things that mattered most to them in front of a company representative or an entire executive team. We are coming full circle because consumers are letting us back into their lives, and on their terms.

The question remains, what roles will we play in this new transformation?

Better yet, what role will you play?

Posted via email from goonth's posterous


Charlie Quirk said...

Great Post G,

I think it was touching the part about the deliberation over the choice of a few words of copy. I've had a similar experience before when you fall into the trap of actually thinking it matters. And often superiors, or colleagues act as if it is a question of the watertight-ness of the strategy if a couple of words here or there are changed. This is utter bullshit quite frankly.

Especially to the "passive viewership" who let's face it, couldn't give a rat's about one's specific choice of words. If the choice of words in a temporary campaign is all the differentiation/innovation a company is capable of, then it is time to re-evaluate why it does business.

"Fortes fortuna adiuvat".

In other news, I am disappointed you failed to mention how badly the Ducks will beat USC on October 31st! Quack Quack!!

Gunther Sonnenfeld said...

Oh man, Charlie, you opened up a sore spot with that last comment ;)

You raise a great point about businesses and the internal protocols they use (or don't use) in their outreach. Marketing and advertising are probably functions that are the most dependent on sound corporate practices, and this is something we're seeing even more apparent when it comes to building a digital and social presence.