Advertising is an Anachronism

Picture me frazzled. It’s been a busy past few weeks. I’ve been here and there, at events and planning for upcoming ones. I missed last week because I was too busy, and I’m about to drop a million words of angst in your inbox on a Friday afternoon as if you don’t have anything better to do. I guess I’m that kind of friend this week. Don’t hate me….

CB, April 17, 2015

Advertising is a noisy anachronism. It’s a ghost, lingering long past its time, desperately holding on to its past purpose and usefulness, popping up in every corner of its old house and annoying the people who live there now. People who never really knew it and don’t care that it’s dead. They’d be like, “go to the light, advertising,” if they cared, but they don’t. Instead, they’re like, “get out of my way.” Advertising is the royal family. Or powdered wigs in English courts. Or Navy side caps. It’s the way because it’s the way. Important because it’s important. But really, a useless waste of time that looks more and more ridiculous the further away from it you get. Advertising is a plant, left untended and overgrown, it’s branches sprawled out so far from its roots that it will eventually starve itself. Haste the day.

It wasn’t always this way. In the Mad Men days, advertising made much more sense than it does now. Practical sense. We had fewer sources of discovery, less leisure time, and fewer consumer options to choose from. And in the context in which it was used, advertising was — in many cases — much more straightforward, artful, and novel. Periodicals were probably the most intriguing support for advertising, with magazines offering national and regional advertisers a way to more precisely target a particular, interest-based demographic spread over greater distances, and newspapers giving local advertisers access to the people next door, morning and evening. Radio and television programming was much more limited — this was a time when “radio silence” and “off the air” were phrases used non-metaphorically — which made “tuning in” a much more intentional and important decision. For advertisers, this offered the largest, most rapt attention possible. (And by the 1950s, television had already bumped radio out of the preferred media slot for most Americans, shifting its programming focus from scripted material to music, which of course came with a different, less advertising-subsidized economic structure. By 1970, there were still only 700 UHF & VHF channels; quite a few, yes, but there are 1,300 now. And we didn’t get basic cable until 1976.) Oh, and surfaces! Posters and billboards! Posters were still art, able to be studied and enjoyed by passers-by on foot and certainly often created that way, and billboards were still somewhat of a novel approach, the object of an growing population of commuting motorists and their available attention at highway speeds. Each of these forms of advertising was appropriate to the way we lived then, and certainly to the manner in which it leaned on the technology of the time.

Overall, this was a media landscape that allowed for much greater spans of quiet, at least in terms of advertising as noise to “content’s” signal. And it was a landscape over which the lines between what was advertising and what was not were drawn much more clearly.

None of this is true today. Not really. Today’s media landscape is a hoarder’s den, and advertising is, well, pick whatever thing that shouldn’t be piled up in the living space of a sane human being. It’s that. Every empty water bottle you’ve ever drained. Someone else’s takeout trash. Cat skeletons (sorry, but this was in an actual episode of Hoarders). Whatever. Junk.

Advertising as we know it has no place in today’s world. For one simple reason: volume. The amount of media produced today far exceeds what was produced when our existing advertising model took shape. That model is based upon attachment and attention. Attaching advertising to media and taking a share of its attention.

In 1970, the standard advertising to content ratio was .85:1, or about 46% advertising. So, in practical terms, that meant that as you flipped through a magazine back then, a bit less than every other page would have been advertising. Since then, of course, that ratio has flipped. In 2011, the average had risen to about 55% advertising, 45% content (although I’ve heard rumors that some magazines, like Vogue, can be up closer to 77% ads). So, to better visualize this, that means that a 120-page magazine went from having 55 pages of advertising to 66 pages. Now, 11 pages may not seem like a huge jump, but experienced over the course of flipping through a magazine from beginning to end, it’s certainly enough to notice. Provided, of course, that you are able to still discern what is and what is not and ad. To that point, I remember righteously canceling my subscription to WIRED in 2004 or so after flipping through an issue and realizing that a several-page section that I had been reading for a few minutes was, in fact, advertising and not actual WIRED content. I was aghast! And yes, I also eventually noticed the small “Advertisement” label hiding out at the top of the page. But it was clearly intended to be missed. This wasn’t a traditional ad, nor was it the sort of content you might consider product placement (10 New Gadgets You Should Buy). It was an ad pretending to a WIRED article! And it looked a lot like one. What kind of strategy is that other than cynical bait and switch that tips the hands of the publication (We no longer have any leverage in our relationships with advertisers and don’t believe our readers are intelligent enough to notice) and the advertisers (We don’t believe we can convince intelligent people to consider our product without manipulating them). This is a shame, of course, but it isn’t the biggest problem I’m going to complain about. I mean, we’re talking about dying media here. Magazines are dying. That ads are taking them over may make it look like they’re the disease — like a spreading cancer — but they’re just the maggots. Eventually, they’ll have nothing left to eat.

Because of the internet. Because we’re making new media, more media, our own media. Because it moves faster. And our attention goes with it. Ads want to attach to wherever our attention is. And that’s the big problem. Our attention is limited. Yet our capacity to produce media — all of which makes some claim on our attention — has far exceeded our capacity to take it in and it’s own capacity to support attached advertising.

That’s the irony of the modern technological predicament. With more options for attention-spend than ever before, and less entropy than ever before — because, after all, every webpage, song, book, or video is just a thumb-swipe and tap away — there are, of course, more options for advertising than ever before. But with so many claims on our attention, the fatigue is great no matter what we choose to give that attention to. Whether it has advertising or not! The claim itself costs something. Which leaves little to no energy or patience for a claim that costs attention and more; for the claim that’s selling something. Years ago, we thought little of sitting through 10 minutes or more of commercials over the course of a 30 minute sitcom. But today, we frenetically click the “skip ad” button when we can, mute the player when we can’t, or close the tab entirely after one look at a timeline decorated with little yellow gaps and think no no no no no. And that’s the “free” video. On Hulu+, for example, $7.99/mo gets you access, but not freedom from watching the same friggin’ ad three or four times in thirty minutes. Really, has nobody over there suggested maybe showing a different ad every time? I suppose they must have made some deeply cynical analytics-driven assessment here, that 95% of watchers will eventually grow to hate Hulu for giving them the Clockwork Orange treatment, but they’ll probably stick around anyway, and 5% will submit to it and actually buy some of B-list crap that they’ve let barnacle to their B-list programming.

It’s not that we suddenly have a justifiable complaint against the idea of advertising. Yes, advertising attaches itself to media to draw upon its attention, but it’s not entirely fair to characterize advertising simply as an attention parasite. The economics of publishing bear that out, in that any publication would cost far more were there no advertisers paying part of the bill. Surely, the producers of the shows on a network like Hulu+ think that their programming is more valuable than whatever tiny bit of a watcher’s $7.99 can be attributed to it. Evidently, the difference is made up by whatever the advertisers are paying. Otherwise, we’d be paying more. So it’s not entirely OK to feel indignant over having to watch a pre-roll ad before a TV show that we’re otherwise paying little to nothing more to see. But we do, don’t we? It’s because the amount of content we take in on a daily basis has elevated the amount of advertising to the point where any ad is going to be annoying. Especially one that might last up to a minute when the silly cat video it’s barnacled to is barely that long itself. Much in the same way that sudden abundance — albeit made possible by blatant piracy — threw the economic structure of the music industry in disarray, the relatively sudden ubiquity of all forms of content have thrown off the balance of advertising to such a degree as to be unrecoverable short of a return to the pre-internet way of life.

Meanwhile, isn’t non-traditional advertising obviously far more effective? How can it not be? I took a mental inventory of the things I own that have recognizable logos on them — a long list that became more and more disturbing to me as I added to it, by the way — and not one of them came to me by way of a traditional advertisement. Not one! You should do the same. How many things have you bought because of a traditional advertisement? Very few, I bet. So how did you come to know that any of that stuff existed? That’s an interesting question, and one that gets into the semantic weeds, I think. Because all the things that tend to nudge me closer to purchase are things that fall under the category of marketing, not advertising. What’s the difference? Right, I’m not sure. I recently read this unhelpful distinction: “While marketing is the way in which you convince potential buyers that you have the right product for them, advertising is how you communicate to them the existence of that product.” Oook. But what if the thing that made a product’s existence known to me was the same thing that convinced me to buy it? Like when I bought a pair of boots a few months back, and I Googled “most durable boots,” which took me to a blog post reviewing a pair of boots that I had never heard of before but ended up purchasing just days later. So, was that blog marketing or advertising? I’m sayin’. Does it really matter? What matters is that the economics of “content marketing” — regardless of whether it is really any different from advertising at this point — remain substantially different from the economics of advertising. Same thing for the “UX” of “content marketing” vs. the “UX” of “advertising.” As a guy who wanted to buy some boots, the preferred experience is clear. And I look around and wonder that about just about any product. Apple, for example. Would you call their big events marketing or advertising? I mean, we don’t hear — officially, anyway — about any of their products until these events. But we hear a great deal at these events about how these products work, and why they’re the right products for us. Sounds like marketing. Or maybe the distinction just doesn’t really exist anymore. I don’t know. I’m as likely go down the rabbit hole of pedantry as anyone, but this particular debate is not that interesting to me. So I’m going to stick with a distinction that makes sense in my mind: Advertising is the stuff that works by attaching itself to media, while marketing is the stuff that can work on its own.

Not that this makes any of it more likable. You could be gloopiest of Augustus Gloops, but I’d bet just treading for a few minutes in a sea of cookies and candies and cakes would turn you around. Nor does the presence of some useful marketing solve the larger problems that the overall volume of advertising and marketing create in our world. There are fundamental social values that have skewed as well. For one, we have gone from content being the luxury to quiet being the luxury. Matthew Crawford, in the New York Times, puts it well:

“Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think…What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it. The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.”

Who could read that and not punctuate it with their own “amen!” Yet, Crawford had to have been aware of the not-so-subtle irony of these very words being surrounded by four competing demands for a reader’s attention, two of which made by the New York Times itself — to turn away from this article, only three paragraphs in, and tumble down the rabbit hole of their archives or store — and two others from traditional advertisers that still believe that attention can be divided across countless demands, regardless of how utterly irrelevant they might be to the present context. Otherwise, who could possibly account for the random internet dyptich of a couple-hundred earnest words appealing for silence coupled with an ad for PurinaOne dog food the size of an iPhone screen?

Good lord. Where is The Jungle for quiet? Today’s Upton Sinclair is probably blogging somewhere, and any deliverance from obscurity would probably come with Google Adsense.

Just the other evening, I was watching the second chapter of Ken Burns’s series, The Roosevelts, which recounts Theodore’s presidencies in great detail, including his rather risky battle to regulate the rampant avarice of big bosses like JP Morgan and his less risky but no-less ambitious effort to preserve the wilderness throughout much of the western United States. Several times throughout the program, I thought to myself we need another President like him (and yes, I’m ignoring, at least here, his failings and scruples of which there were many and would certainly make him a rather unappealing candidate today). Someone to protect the incorporeal commons. To beat back the advances of corporatism and consumerism. To again acknowledge, on behalf of the state, the fullness of human lives. That we are not simply consumers of resources, drawers upon entitlements, picketers, shoppers, and of course, voters, but living in the fullest sense of the word, and that the intangibles of life — love, community, peace and quiet, among many more — are also natural resources in need of conservation. So what that Teddy probably wanted the wild preserved so there’d always be a place teaming with beasts to shoot and future heads to mount in state dining rooms. We got a vast, majestic space that stands in opposition to our striving, our towers of Babel, our bickering, hoarding, waste and noise.

Conservation, of course, is not an economic model. In fact, it’s often quite the contrary. An imbalance on the balance sheet. An investment. An ethic. And yet, in the economics of attention, silence is, ironically, worth more than its opposite. You get the podcast for free, but if you want just the podcast, as in, ad-free, you’ve got to pay for that. You get the too-big-to-regulate audio and video universe of YouTube, in which you can probably watch just about anything for at least some time (before the wandering deputy licensing-bots discover it and take it down) for free, but with pre-roll and interruptive ads, or you can pay Apple, Amazon, Google Play, Netflix, or a long list of other providers, for the clean version, untainted by advertising, slicing and dicing into parts, or the degradation of crappy video codecs. Silence premiums have found their way into the real world, too, as Crawford goes on to point out:

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted. Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.”

As a friend once said to me about something similarly powerful, profound, upsetting, and yet overwhelmingly true, “Sobs in presence of truth.” So, that.

What’s to be done? Do we decouple advertising and content and pay individually for everything? Unlikely. People are already complaining about how de-cabling could end up just as expensive, if not more, than a cable subscription. Sure, we pay this gross amount to Time Warner Cable when we really just want a small subset of the channels and programming they’re selling, but to gather that stuff on our own — by way of Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Hulu+, etc. etc. etc. — ends up costing the same if now more. And so would you pay for every individual blog, podcast, and radio show that you consume? In addition to the TV you watch? Would you pay double for every movie ticket? Or maybe we double down on marketing and get better at profiling and let the overlords sell more detailed demographic info about us to companies so they can more effectively market to us directly? I mean, that’s kind of happening, isn’t it? And we don’t like that. Do we return to patronage? Hardly. That model worked when there were fewer artists than non-artists and fewer benefactors than artists. That meant there was less “content” as a cultural force and more people entertained themselves and each other by singing hundred year old songs around the fire, telling stories, and playing games, none of which were owned by anyone. So, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a mixture. Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe something will come along and turn all of this so much on its head that we’ll wonder how we ever got along without it. When the present is a morass of hopelessly entrenched bullshit, there’s always Pollyanna futurism.

In the meantime, find some quiet and cling to it.

Would you like to know more? A few years ago, I was all RSS all the time. But now, most of the things I want to read have transitioned to email delivery, just like this thing you’re reading now. If your inbox is feeling a little light, here are a few more newsletters you might like to try out:

  • Dark Matter, from the smart folks at Almighty. All things design, tech, and digital products. Good stuff.
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Recent Tabs: “Oh Turing in ’51 <3 Oh ladies in coffee shops with their phones in ’15 <3” “We should probably work in areas where there are few rules.” - Steve Coast on why the world will only get weirder. Graffiti that only makes sense on Google Maps. Baby stingrays look like raviolis stuffed with tiny damned souls. This is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space. Various monstrous Bitcoin mining rigs. Large hadron collider scientists hope to make contact with a parallel universe. How we wait. Tuesday was the 12th anniversary of this amazing memo. This tiny, tiny computer! Perhaps the single most ambitious stop motion music video ever. The definitive oral history of Max Headroom. Paperholm is just a lovely thing (h/t Robin Sloan). DesignFiction.

Written by Christopher Butler on April 17, 2015,   In Essays

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