Sunday, September 13, 2009

It’s about time some damn body said it!

I broke my elbow today. So Jeff Goodby is my guest writer.

This violates the 100 Words regulations on brevity, but since he's doing the writing, I figure it's okay.

Turns out advertising’s not dying after all.

Here it is, word for wonderful word.

Well, as you always kind of suspected, Bob Garfield hates advertising. He even thinks it will die, at least in its mass-appeal form.
And big deal, he'd say. People hated that crap anyway.

What he doesn't exactly explain is: What are all those big advertisers going to do with all that money instead? Nor does he think there's much chance of you blindsided, slack-jawed advertising people evolving into something that could help answer that question.

OK, OK, let's back up.

Garfield's new book, "The Chaos Scenario," is a well-researched descent into what he gleefully sees as the fragmentation of mass media on a global scale. It's fun to watch the channels fly apart. It's the internet and DVRs that are causing all this, he says, with their heroic empowerment of the individual to call his or her own shots.

Along the way, he chronicles in great detail the inevitable demise of mere newspapers, tenuous magazines and teetering media empires. ("Boom goes the dynamite," he intones again and again, in a not especially charming way.) But he saves the real snickering for advertising people, who are basically riding an out-of-control steam train while lighting cigars with a vanishing stack of $100 bills.

According to "The Chaos Scenario," advertising is now in a screaming "death spiral," in which "fragmentation of an audience and DVR ad skipping lead to an exodus of advertisers, leading in turn to an exodus of capital, leading to a decline in the quality of content, leading to further audience defection, leading to further advertiser defection and so on to oblivion."

Oblivion. Jeez, I hope my kids don't read this.

Anyway, if it sounds like Bob seems to take a little too much pleasure in this last, uh, "scenario," it's because he does. A few random quotes: "Not to sound negative, but all ads are spam."

"The fact is, people care deeply -- sometimes perversely -- about consumer goods, from Tag Heuer to North Face to Tab. What they don't like is being dictated to about what they should care about or when they should be caring."

"Ad agencies are simply not organized in a way to profit from modern means of connecting with customers. So they pay lip service to the digital future while digging their heels into the 30-second-spot present."

Is there any chance we could save Little Nell? Garfield has some heart for consumer-generated things, and describes Legos' successful use of ideas and strategies collected from regular folk (we used to call those focus groups). He writes of Doritos' success with consumer-generated work on the Super Bowl last year. But you have only to look at the cover of Bob's book -- which was consumer-generated and consumer-selected -- to see that this might not be the future. Or at least the only future.

Garfield also likes "movements" -- upwellings of consumer sentiment that motivate companies to do what The People really want them to do. He cites the funny "Comcast Must Die" suggestion that he started himself. That particular reference, though, only seems to have created its own form of chaos lite, since Comcast is neither dead nor have they changed much in its wake.

That's about it for hope. The book's conclusion is: We're pretty much dead meat, treading water in the maelstrom of old-media fragmentation. What's next? Who knows?

But it's possible that Garfield's infatuation with chaos blinds this otherwise smart and acerbically witty guy to the possibility that paid, real advertising could morph itself into something people actually want to experience and seek out. Fifty years ago, San Francisco advertising man Howard Gossage said, "People read what they want to read. Sometimes it's advertising." It still could be, Bob.

There is simply too much money and corporate energy devoted to this cause for those budgets, and hopes, to disappear overnight. There will be no "Post-apocalyptic Post-Advertising Age," as Garfield calls it.

Not only that, but I firmly believe we don't want to be advertised to in private, with nothing to discuss around the water cooler. We like the social interaction of enjoying or hating these ham-fisted corporate efforts together. The world won't simply turn into -- as Bob says it could, at one point -- a place where corporations exclusively adopt the "collaborative filtering" Amazon and Netflix use to sell products: "People who liked those socks also enjoyed this fig jam!"

Garfield is indeed right to take pleasure in the Darwinian excising of bad advertising. I do, too. But he overlooks the very thing that will fund this unlikely rebirth of advertising we actually like. And that is the current inability of the internet to make money.

The fact is, much of the internet is not paying for itself, especially in the media realm. Bob would say: Great -- then die, media realm, die. I, on the other hand, believe that very soon the internet will finally wean us off the expectation that everything's free online. And it will do so through a combination of micropayment entry fees and, yes, advertising that people like.

Not everyone will be able to adapt to these changes. Not everyone who is making advertising now will be able to make advertising that people like (boy, is that an understatement). But the chaos will abate.

I think this because I believe that even the internet, deep down, seeks order rather than chaos. Chaos is not good for making money. Thus, the chaos that is aptly but a little too enthusiastically described by Garfield, will pass.

In "The World Is Flat" (a more optimistic examination of change in the world), Thomas Friedman chronicles the manner in which the world adapts to change in radically unforeseen ways. Faced with rising costs, JetBlue hires stay-at-home mothers as their telephone sales people. Personal-assistant work is outsourced to people on the other side of the world while we sleep. A little town in Connecticut goes from failed Navy base to wild gambling center in 10 years.

I believe this kind of thing will happen to us. Well, you know, most of us.

The world of advertising and media is chaotic right now. Garfield has done well to entertainingly bring up what may perhaps be the biggest, most vexing transition going on in the world today. Irritatingly, he doesn't give the best of us very good odds of surviving it all.

I do.

I'd give it a gentle two stars.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

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