Or how to annoy your potential customers without hiring an advertising agency.
Brand content that treats digital as an extension of the one-to-many media paradigm is advertising by another name. It’s the 20th century practice of force-feeding consumers with brand messages until they surrender their last shred of free will, transferred wholesale to the digital arena.
Until digital marketing learns the lessons that made one out of a million advertising ideas literally and figuratively exceptional we should call it what it is: “digiting” — the proverbial finger in the eye.
Digiting is to the 21st century what so much of advertising was to the 20th, the thick-skinned company rep materialising uninvited in the middle of your precious downtime with a tray of snake-oil and a wink and a nod. Nowadays he doesn’t have the courtesy or the time for the wink or the nod so he pops up in the middle of your browsing to shout at you in capital letters until your cursor discovers the X that will shut him up; or she sneaks into your pocket to whisper, “Hey, you! Hey, you! Hey, you!” in the language of beeps and vibrations.
It isn’t that all advertising and digital content is uniformly bad — it’s that almost all of it is contextually inappropriate.
It is widely supposed that there are only two theories of advertising:
Strong Theory asserts that customers are passive and that advertising is persuasive. Accordingly, advertising generates increased sales by changing long-term customer behaviour.
Weak Theory asserts that customers are problem solvers who adopt brand habits after a process of trial and error. At its best, advertising can inform the customer or reinforce the customer’s adopted brand habit, or occasionally both.
It took decades of research and statistical analysis for Andrew Ehrenberg, Chair of Marketing and Communication at the London Business School for 23 years, to prove conclusively that the Strong Theory was wishful thinking. Advertising could amuse, amaze, charm, excite, entertain, fascinate, inform, intrigue, seduce, scare, tease, thrill or warn. What advertising couldn’t do was persuade.
Share of market correlates with share of voice because repetition enhances the likelihood that a given brand will be included in the customer’s experimental set of options at the precise moment they are considering their alternatives. Brands that satisfy become habits; brands that don’t, don’t.
In this reading, repetition works — if only expensively and eventually.
This isn’t as revelatory as it might sound. In 1885 one Thomas Smith wrote a book called Successful Advertising in which he anticipated Ehrenberg by well over a century:
The 1st time people look at an ad, they don’t see it.
The 2nd time, they don’t notice it.
The 3rd time, they are aware that it is there.
The 4th time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it before.
The 5th time, they actually read the ad.
The 6th time, they thumb their nose at it.
The 7th time, they get a little irritated with it.
The 8th time, they think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”
The 9th time, they wonder if they’re missing out on something.
The 10th time, they ask their friends or neighbors if they’ve tried it.
The 11th time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
The 12th time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
The 13th time, they start to feel the product has value.
The 14th time, they start to feel like they’ve wanted a product like this for a long time.
The 15th time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.
The 16th time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
The 17th time, they make a commitment to buy the product.
The 18th time, they curse their poverty because they can’t buy this terrific product.
The 19th time, they count their money very carefully.
The 20th time prospects see the ad, they buy what it is offering.
Many great truths are spoken in jest. Even if Smith had his tongue firmly in his cheek, his description of the fictional journey from blind ignorance through disdain, irritation and annoyance to ultimate surrender rings disturbingly close to 21st century reality. More importantly, it is phenomenologically accurate. These are precisely the thoughts and feelings that hover just beneath the surface of consciousness as we attempt to process the assault on our senses of advertising and digital content we have seen a hundred times before.
With the persuasion model conclusively demolished we were left with the Weak Theory by default, and frequency became the de facto guarantee of marcomms efficacy, if not efficiency.
Ehrenberg’s findings were good news for media buyers and for CMO’s with deep pockets, but unequivocally bad news for creative agencies and for marketers who couldn’t afford to play with the big dogs. If the most effective way of getting customers to consider trialling a brand was to put it in their faces as often as possible there was little point in spending time and money attempting to embellish the logo with a creative idea. Sponsorship didn’t, and who could argue with the billions of dollars invested in that?
As luck or fate would have it, digital arrived just in time to give brands big and small hitherto unimaginable opportunities to put their logos and idea-free messages into the thoughts of customers busy doing something else — and digiting was born.
It was at about this point in history that agency insiders began to circulate the opinion that advertising was over and the clients had won.
In the tiresome debate about the role of creativity in the effectiveness of advertising, the one thing both brand owners and their agencies can usually agree upon is an aspiration for memorability. Problematically, the brand owner believes memorability resides in the frequency and ubiquity of the brand presence, while the creative agency believes it resides in connecting a customer need to a brand offering by means of a compelling creative idea. To borrow from the lexicon of Yuval Noah Harari, they are two different belief systems.
We inherited the former from the Rosser Reeves school of telling the audience what you’re going to tell them, telling them, and telling them what you told them; the latter from the accumulated evidence of the Gunn Report, which correlates award-winning creativity with market performance.
Despite Ehrenberg and common sense, the ghost of persuasion dies hard. There are few temptations in life quite as difficult to resist as our inclination to equate correlation with causation, so it is inevitable that brand owners will attribute sales growth to the persuasive power of repetition, and likewise for their agencies to attribute it to the persuasive power of their good idea.
Occasionally a big budget will meet an authentic insight and the resulting success will convince both parties that they are right. Then, like young lovers bathing in the Cannes sunset, they will swear undying allegiance to one another with fingers crossed behind their backs to nix their true feelings.
The apparent standoff between the proponents of the Weak Theory and the adherents of the Strong is a false and misleading dichotomy. As Faisal Ahmed and I argue in Skip Ad in 5, it takes only a few moments of introspection to reveal that context matters more than content. Great content received at the wrong time or in the wrong place is poor content; mundane content that speaks directly to our immediate needs, wants or desires is great content. More than that, it is persuasive.
The difference between Weak Theory and Strong Theory is the difference between planning to be lucky or planning to be smart.
But good ideas don’t start with communication. They begin with empathic product or service design; they remove the physical, emotional and informational friction that stands between what we want and what we hope to get; and they recognise that our biological urges, our desire for social acceptance and our need to make sense of a nonsensical world are far more likely to inspire us of out the inertia of habit to take decisive action than any information that isn’t existentially threatening.
Without these three things, content is feeble at best. And the more of it there is, the more trivial it becomes. It arrives like litter on the wind, and is swept away in the stream of everyday consciousness long before it has time to settle in the shallows of our attention.
At worst it’s a regular poke in the eye.
David Foster Wallace called the ’90s the “… awkwardest of post-Imperial decades, an age suspended between exhaustion and replenishment, between input too ordinary to process and input too intense to bear.”
Nothing has changed.