The Decline of Advertising: Good for Humanity and a Cause for Reflection.

I want to start this explication by saying that I don’t necessarily agree that advertising is becoming obsolete. Ads today are rarely truly about pushing products. Today’s companies advertise their brands. While the public attention span for commercials has indeed shortened, and companies have had to get more and more creative, effective advertising today still attempts to forge an emotion connection with the customer in order to build a lasting personal relationship. Despite the more nebulous link of a “personal relationship” to the consumer creating less of a direct connection between advertising and sales, maintaining a cultural footprint that keeps a brand on the customer’s mind is undoubtedly still a valuable asset for a company to have. Associating a brand with a particular activity or a certain level of quality is still beneficial enough to businesses that advertising is unlikely to go anywhere soon.

That said, advertising experts who track the industry for a living say that the effectiveness of advertising has steadily declined and could be facing a precipitous collapse. It might behoove us to look at why. The first and most obvious reason is that we now have many ways of getting around ads. For years, the most prominent format for advertising was television commercials. Network television provided most people with entertainment that they had to watch live and was completely ad supported. Now, premium channels like HBO have become popular due to the quality of their programming; most people have some sort of subscription based entertainment; DVR allows us to record what we want and watch it later, presumably fast-forwarding over commercials; OnDemand shows are presented ad-free; and if all else fails, we can still catch pirated versions of TV shows online without commercials. Heck, even physical media like DVD sales cut into advertising exposure. If they so choose, people today can access as much scripted television as they could ever consume without being subject to television advertisements. Furthermore, while live sporting events still retain a relative advantage in advertising potency, in practice, people still get up and leave the room for commercials, or switch to a different game and wait for them to end.

While our ability to avoid traditional advertisements has undoubtedly had an impact on the industry, it does not tell the whole story. The industry has adapted. Advertisers have found other ways of putting their products in front of us. Streaming videos on the internet feature ads; billboards still occupy our roads; print ads still exist and have made the transition from pages in magazines to the margins of the web-based articles we all read; the apps on our phones are ad-supported; banner ads are on most of our web pages, Facebook targets us with sponsored content in our news feeds, product placement still inundates the shows whose commercials we fast-forward through; companies directly send us emails; physical “junk mail” catalogs still exist; Internet pop-ups litter all of our computer screens; people stand on the side of the road with signs to get our attention; virtually every store we pass has some form of print media trying to grab our attention. Face it, ads are still everywhere, and that is likely the problem.

Every one of the aforementioned methods of advertising is either looked-past, discarded, or immediately cleared from the screen by most people. Advertisers tend think of themselves the way all businessmen think of themselves, as “conquerors.” Like any “corporate conquerors,” advertisers sought perpetual expansion, endeavoring to get their product (ads) into as many places as possible. Of course, website owners, publishers, and every other platform on which ads could be placed, were eager to accept this expansion. Ads represented revenue, and they were willing to place ads all over their platforms from as many brands as possible. Companies who wanted to sell their actual products, believed that increased exposure would undoubtedly increase sales. The problem is that everyone got their way. Advertisers have had their work displayed far and wide. Prominent platform owners have found more than enough takers to put ads in every available space. Companies willingly footed the bill for all this. Now, we are so saturated in ads that we ignore them all.

Advertisers forgot what kind of businesses they were. They built their empires, but they failed to produce the desired effect. Conventional business-to-consumer companies expand by putting their product into more hands, spreading the areas in which they distribute product, and building a more diverse customer base. For this model, simply selling the product is enough. Ads are different, ads grow the market for OTHER PRODUCTS by raising awareness. Ads are business-to-business transactions. Rather than having the product sale be an end in and of itself, for ads, the company pays the advertiser and the platform as a means to an end. Unlike direct sale of consumer goods, the transaction that buys and sells an ad is one step removed from the value it creates. The end of course is the sale of a product to a consumer. This is important because it means that ads have to resonate, not with the “customer” (in this case, the company), but with the end consumers who see them. The necessity of this “resonance” is key to understanding the breakdown of advertising’s effectiveness.

Returning to the “empire” analogy, throughout history the most successful empires have been the ones that blended in the most. The empires whose presences effortlessly became ubiquitous with daily life were the most stable and enduring. Advertisers have successfully done this. They have spread their “brand relationship” empires into every corner of our lives and created a society where our lives blend seamlessly with advertising, to the point that we don’t even notice it.

Starting to see the problem? The whole point of advertising is to be noticed. Every individual ad does its best to vie for attention but we have simply seen so many of them that, by and large, they just run off of us like water on a lily pad. We are so used to looking past, scrolling on, and exiting out of that pop-up that we now do it instinctually. We swat away these attempts to “build a relationship” without giving the outreach even the slightest chance to be effective. Paradoxically, these ploys for attention elicit among the least attention from us of anything in our lives.

It is possible that the advertising industry might need to take an introspective look at itself. The decrease in advertising’s potency is probably a socially heathy trend. We started avoiding their precious television ads, so they started working ads into every aspect of our lives. If we really had the kind of “human relationship” with advertisers that they seem to want to cultivate, then their behavior would be considered “stalking.” It’s very telling that the primary response of an overwhelming number of people to excessive advertising is to develop an instinctual reflex for ignoring and discarding these efforts. Advertising, in the particular overabundance with which we experience it, has always been an invasive practice that is unwelcome in people’s lives. In its original incarnation, television and print advertising may have been better appreciated because it provided people with free entertainment that they would otherwise have to pay for. Today it has grown into a nuisance that we now tolerate more than accept. The fact that advertising has seen precipitously diminished effectiveness likely means that once put-upon human beings have developed coping mechanisms that have given them their power back.

The over-consumerization of our culture, as epitomized by the ubiquity of advertising in our lives is unhealthy for our broader culture as well. Culture is the community identity that a group of people develop through their interactions and lives together, but it typically only takes shape once people feel that their sustenance needs are met. An overly-consumerist culture ties the acquisition of things to social value in a way that equates all consumption with sustenance. Everything that a person consumes becomes essential because they can never consume enough to secure their social value. In this way, even luxury spending becomes “sustenance,” and a person can never secure enough resources to get past the “sustenance” phase of life. Life itself becomes nothing more than a pursuit of “things,” with community and identity falling by the wayside. In this way, a culture that devolves into pure consumerism ceases to be a culture at all. At this point, for the health of our society and sense of community, having people start to look away and simply ignore advertisers’ efforts is the best outcome we can hope for.

I understand that advertising is a necessary part of a commercial enterprise and an integral part of a functional consumer-based economy, but it is difficult to look at the current situation and not think that the entire practice has gotten well out of hand. At a basic level, old fashioned notions of advertising still apply: people appreciate being informed of good products that can improve their quality of life. Getting the word out about one’s product is still important for a business’s success.

But here is the part of this essay that will sound like an intervention: what people object to is invasive attempts to induce their behavior through disingenuous means. The newest and most egregious example of this practice, native advertising, actually betrays customers by outright lying to them and ultimately eroding their trust in the platforms that carry ads. Think about it, if the online news source that you use were to try to push a product on you by presenting an advertisement as a news story, would you trust it anymore once you learned the truth? Wouldn’t that company’s advertising efforts largely be wasted on you after that? The thing to remember about native advertising is that it only works on people once or twice. It has the feel of an act of desperation by an advertising industry that has simply saturated the public with too much output.

Advertisers should seriously consider toning it down and trying a new approach. How about this: fewer ads with better targeting. This is industry-wide advice, we can’t have some companies reduce their footprint and allow their competition to seize all of the attention. But if advertisers across the industry, and the companies backing them, would stop inundating customers with constant pleas for attention and focus on a reasonable amount of exposure in areas where they know that they are likely to reach their customers, their marketing situations might improve. Many successful companies already do this to some degree. Nike almost never “interrupts my life” with unwelcome advances, but I see its presence in sports often enough to be reminded that it exists. Targeting marketing efforts to maximize their likelihood of reaching potential customers is an old tactic. Pairing such targeting with a universal reduction in advertising in order to reduce the public’s “ad fatigue” would be a new tactic. Much in the same way that people appreciate the rain more when it comes in spotty showers than a perpetual downpour that floods the town, people will likely be more receptive to advertising if they see it when it’s relevant to their lives but not constantly in their field of vision.

Another helpful change would be to get back to “honest advertising.” This one is relatively simple. In advertisers’ quest to build relationships with their customers they have increasingly gone for emotional connections. While these can indeed be powerful, they suffer from the same diminishing returns that the sheer volume of advertising is encountering. Especially today, people are acutely aware that the vast majority of corporate America is made up of socially irresponsible greed engines that simply want their money. These aren’t the best circumstances in which to build real trust. Also, by now people are so used to that kind of appeal that they are increasingly able to look past it. While the emotional appeal may work for a moment, it doesn’t necessarily linger long enough to translate into sales. At this point, a “fresh” approach would be to get back to basics: direct advertisements that illustrate the qualities of the product to the customer. Instead of dubiously trying to become customers’ “friends” by taking their money, honest commercials that simply and succinctly explain the benefits of purchasing a product would actually be a good way to develop that “personal relationship” that companies care so much about. Duluth Trading Co. has done a good job of this.

Advertising in this day and age appears to have lost its way. The collapse of traditional television advertising and the corresponding rise of internet based advertising has created a desperate situation where advertisers are shoving content in customers’ faces everywhere they look hoping something will stick. It appears to be precipitating a collapse in the effectiveness of the industry as a whole. The solution can’t be more unwanted intrusions into people’s computers and lives. Advertisers need to take a step back, start thinking of their target audience as ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS, and adjust their approach to something more restrained and honest. In doing so, they could both rejuvenate their industry and greatly ameliorate the damage they have done to society over the last several decades.