Could changes in advertising kill television?

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 10 2009 12:07 PM

Is Television Over?

An intriguing new book about the ad recession's next victim.

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It all portends chaos for the television industry. But Garfield foresees equal tumult in store for the big-time ad agencies. He predicts the gradual demise of the classic, 30-second TV spot, which has been the lifeblood of major agencies for half a century. His prescription: Advertising will need to be less about displaying hip imagery and implanting mood associations and more about interacting with consumers online, analyzing their complaints and desires (as revealed in their blog posts and Web site comments), and providing utilitarian information to those who seek it out.

This approach, which Garfield dubs "listen-omics," may well turn out to be a more effective method of marketing. But there's also far less money in it. To illustrate this point, Garfield relates an anecdote about the Six Flags theme park deciding to give away 45,000 tickets as a promotion for its 45th anniversary. They told their big ad agency to figure out the logistics. Once upon a time, the agency might have spent lots of time and resources creating radio spots or billboard ads, and then securing placements for them, to make the public aware of the free tickets. Instead, recognizing the new reality, the agency just typed up a little blurb on Craigslist. The tickets were gone in five hours. Worked great, but as one of the agency executives subsequently wondered: How do you bill the client for that?

The thought of a scared and confused ad exec would no doubt delight Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky, editors of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. Many of the essays in this compilation originally appeared in Stay Free!—a zine, and later a Web site, that McLaren launched in 1993. The unifying theme: a deeply held suspicion, verging on primal fear, of marketing's quest to creep into every corner of our lives.

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I can get weary of earnest, anti-consumerist droning. (I'm looking at you, Adbusters.) But Ad Nauseam manages to serve up its paranoia with a light and funny touch. It begins by tracing the evolutionary arc of persuasive advertising, from the stuffy pedantry of the 1800s to the "science"-laden claims of the 1920s through the 1940s to the eventual disappearance of text and arguments in favor of striking, emotional images. Another essay ridicules moments of sudden, radical brand repositioning, noting, for instance, that Marlboro cigarettes were first targeted at women before the company settled on a rugged, manly image. The book also recounts some dark chapters in marketing history, including Coca-Cola's successful effort to get Olive Garden to stop serving free tap water and instead push soft drinks on its patrons.

At all times, the goal is awareness. The underlying assumption is that consumerism has so pervaded our surroundings that it's vital to step back and assess just what it is we're up against. As McLaren posits in her introduction, decades of sophisticated, ubiquitous marketing have turned us all into "fish who can't see the water."

Both The Chaos Scenario and Ad Nauseam provide entertaining material for armchair marketing scholars and ammunition for sworn advertising haters. Ultimately, though, they come from opposite tacks. Consider the recent revelation, on the official Google blog, that a cute home video of a choreographed entrance dance at a Minnesota wedding managed to double typical YouTube advertising click-through rates and also dramatically boost sales of a year-old R&B single. The Ad Nauseam folks might see this as the latest outrage—now even our wedding videos are fuel for the marketing juggernaut. Bob Garfield, on the other hand, might view this as a step in the right direction.

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