Are Advertisers Suffering From Addiction?

Following was also my MediaPost column

Are Advertisers Suffering From Addiction?

A television network will laser-imprint its logo and slogan on eggs in major markets around the U.S. this fall as it launches 35 million “egg-vertisements” to promote its fall lineup. That’s no joke, according to Dan Thanh Dang of The Baltimore Sun, who reported on some of the more outrageous ideas marketers are cooking up to grab consumer attention.

I admire risks and bold experimentation (including egg-vertisements), but advertisers’ unstoppable march to claim every bit of blank space as a commercial vehicle makes me wonder about the bigger picture: Are advertisers suffering from addiction? Thanks to media fragmentation, media-device proliferation and an erosion of trust in institutional messages, the effectiveness of paid media and intrusive messaging is imploding. So what do many advertisers do? Despite steady or increasing prices for supply, it seems they keep buying more and more just to achieve prior levels of impact. In other words, they’re hooked.

This leads me to my next question: Are media companies addiction enablers? Indeed, for every advertiser willing to acquire attention via paid media and intrusion, there’s a media company pursuing new ways to satisfy and capitalize on that demand. A ravenous appetite for attention is even prompting otherwise traditional brands to leverage themselves as media. We see this manifested through so-called branded entertainment, and even brands that turn themselves into center-stage media as vehicles for other commercial messages.

But every high has its peak and crash, and that makes me wonder if intrusive advertising models are reaching their limits. Earlier this week, Ad Age reported that McKinsey & Co. is telling major marketers in a new report that by 2010, traditional TV advertising will be one-third as effective as it was in 1990. McKinsey is estimating “a 15% decrease in buying power driving by cost-per-thousand rate increases; a 23% decline in ads viewed due to switching off; a 9% loss of attention to ads due to increased multitasking and a 37% decrease in message impact due to saturation.”

Contrary to this alarm around television, we should note this trend is probably not an exclusive reflection of television, nor is it simply an indicator of attention shifting to other media. While not a popular point of view among advertisers or media agencies, this trend probably has a large and growing amount to do with an overall erosion of consumer attention around paid media. The fact is that disruptive advertising is a model based primarily on an economy of shelf space and distribution. If you can get on the shelf, you’re golden!

Not so anymore. The problem with that thinking, to quote management consultant and author John Hagel, is that attention is the new scarcity, not shelf space. There is an inverse relationship, if not a paradox: the more brands cut through the clutter by expanding the volume of disruptive commercial messages in every direction, the more clutter they produce and less effective they all become. Many of our industry’s leaders are struggling to explain this trend amidst a construct called “engagement.” It’s a tragedy of the commons.

If we are headed to a world where consumer attention becomes far less attainable with paid media, then where does that take us? I believe it means we’re approaching an age where real competitive differentiation becomes a better overall brand experience. Where a great brand experience is not only required to demonstrate value and achieve loyalty, but to achieve awareness in the first place–because customers feel compelled to talk about a brand (back to basics–word of mouth). A world where marketers not only have great products, but have as much interest in helping their customers as they do themselves. That requires understanding customers’ personal, customized needs better than their own. It means listening, affinity and relationships, not talking or pitching louder and more frequently.

At the same time, I would hope we’re amidst a tipping point where the most successful marketing agencies will recommend to their clients, when appropriate: “reduce not only your television budget, but your entire media budget. And increase your investments in R&D, the product and customer service. Build trust and credibility.”

Like drug addicts, many advertisers addicted to the model of attention by disruption face gradual self-destruction. For those who realize consumer attention can no longer be bought and sold over the paid-media counter, there’s a huge opportunity. But transforming legacy habits and systems to new models will be grueling for many.

What do you think?

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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