It’s an ads, an ads world

A tale of relevance and need

Last week, the internet caught fire when it seemed that Netflix was experimenting with ads before and after its videos. People all around the world revolted (me included) — ADS? ON NETFLIX? A SERVICE I ALREADY PAY A MONTHLY SUBSCRIPTION TO?

As it turns out, they weren’t ads — or rather they were, but only for Netflix’s original content. But the fact that Netflix could be considering ads wasn’t the most relevant part of the story; people’s reaction to it was.

Our relationship with advertisement has always been very bipolar.

Just the other day, talking with the Facebook Creative Shop team, I asked “what do people expect from brands on Facebook?” and one of the guys replied: “that they are not present”. It was a joke, but given the choice, who among us wouldn’t want to get rid of advertisement for good? It pollutes the articles we read, it inflates our newsfeed, it disrupts our video-viewing experience. Also, it pays for the whole show.

Since the dawn of time (or, some would argue, the printing press), advertisement has been an annoying companion to our news and entertainment. It’s also been responsible for keeping the price of that news and entertainment as low as possible, or even free. We didn’t question it, for we didn’t see any other way: the offline media has always been a “sender and receiver” affair — we were forced to listen, and it never occurred to us to answer back.

Then along came the internet! Humanity discovered a way to be heard without being necessarily famous, or rich — you could just log in and speak your mind. For a while, it seemed that we could be a happy, self-sustainable community. We were wrong.

Advertisement pollutes the articles we read, inflates our newsfeed, disrupts our video-viewing experience. Also, it pays for the whole show.

The earliest form of online advertisement, the banner (along with is infamous cousin, the pop-up banner) showed up, begging for your clicks. Annoying? Sure — but also restricted. Ad banners had their place (mainly margins), and a heat map of any website will show our eyes have been trained over time to simply ignore those places.

Then came social media! YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and company promised to make a celebrity of anyone, giving us the platforms to create content in the fastest and easiest way possible, and an audience no Geocities website could match. “This is it”, we thought. “These are social networks, peer-to-peer. Brands won’t be allowed in”. Wrong again.

Good things don’t pay for themselves, and we sure as heck couldn't be expected to pay a monthly subscription to a website that gives us mostly pictures of cats, like-for-a-life photos and obscure, comment-bait status updates. Advertisers were glad to pick up the tab — this was after all, where all the consumers were going. And though brands settled for the traditional trade-off (banners) for a while, they began to expect more. They didn’t wanna be just present, they wanted to be relevant.

Advertisers’ relation to the audience,

conversely, has always been pretty one-sided. In the aforementioned times of offline media, there was no way of telling if people were actually seeing your ads — but, since there was nowhere else for them to go, it was pretty sure they were. As for what they actually understood, and what they thought of it, advertisers had to settle for calling people in a room and asking them.

That taught brands to think of an audience that doesn’t actually exist — an audience that has seen every ad, understood it, loved it and will remember it. And, for the most part (barring some epic failed product launches), there was no one to tell advertisers they were wrong. No one, that is, except their family and friends, who would for the most part make awkward comments towards a print ad or a commercial, showing clear signs of not having understood it (or having hated it). “It’s OK”, the advertisers would tell themselves, “they’re not the target audience”. They never met the target audience, touched it or heard it ramble on about day-to-day problems, but marketers were sure they would get it, and love it, and remember it.

Advertisement speaks to an audience that doesn’t exist. An audience that has seen every ad, understood it, loved it and will remember it.

With the advent of the internet, brands were at first thrilled. Now advertisers could explain their products at length, taking you to their website in just one click. To them, banners were portals, portals to Brand-land and all its wonders. And what’s more, you could actually sell things on the internet! People didn’t have to leave their homes, they could act on their consumerist impulses right from the couch!

Agencies around the world trembled. When questioned of why some campaigns wouldn’t produce immediate sells, they would answer “it’s a slow process. You have to build a brand. It’ a subtle mechanism. They’ll remember us eventually when they’re in the supermarket, or switching phone lines, or opening a bank account”. Well, now that was over. People didn’t have to remember you, they could buy you righ then and there! And most didn’t: around 5% of people who see an internet banner click on it. About 5% of those will actually buy something.

A funny thing. I wouldn’t know, but I would say that about 99% of those who see a movie or read a text will remember it later. There’s no accounting for whether they’ll like it or not, but it’s almost sure they’ll remember it. Why is it not the same with advertisement? Why can’t we recall the ads we saw yesterday, but we can easily recap the House of Cards episodes we binge-watched? Because, of course, we chose to see the latter and were forced to see the former.

Why can’t we recall the ads we saw yesterday, but we can easily recap the House of Cards episodes we binge-watched?

Social media seemed like a perfect solution. If people “liked” my page and followed my account, it meant they chose me, right? But because everyone was invited to this party, it got a little crowded. In an effort to match people to the conversations they wanted to have, The Algorithm was created, silencing everything that wasn’t “relevant” to its audience. Brands, sadly, weren’t.

The remedy to such lack of relevance? Money, of course — off went the brands to pay for the space they couldn’t earn. They didn’t settle for the margins, either: they wanted to be where the action was. They sat between our aunt’s family pictures and our friend’s romantic lyrics, interrupted us before the latest Beyoncé video started playing and tried to get us to use their hashtags. We, of coursed, learned to filter them out on our own, placing the pointer to hit the “Skip” button as soon as the 5 seconds are over.

It all comes down to who has the loudest voice. We shed our offline past and

entered the internet hand in hand — everyone should be able to speak as loud in there. “Except the internet betrayed us”, you say, “and took the brands’ money!” But think about it: what’s the last thing you retweeted, the last YouTube video that made you spit from laughing and that you immediately shared on your Facebook wall? I bet it wasn’t branded. The loudest voice on the internet is not the one with the most money, it’s the one that’s more relevant to most people.

I’m not saying advertisement can’t ever be relevant. I myself can think of a Head & Shoulders YouTube campaign in Brazil that I never skipped. If I ever had dandruff, I would buy a H&S shampoo, because it’d be the only one I’ve heard of, and because they made me laugh. Just as I’m sure that if any of you became a trucker, you would choose a Volvo truck, because of that epic Van Damme split. But doubt that more than 5 advertisement campaigns every year will be remembered by the audience the following year.

There is a way. An honest, albeit difficult, way to relevance (besides, of course, an actually good product and a knack for staying on the right side of the law). When marketers forget for a second about the brand and remember that they are, themselves, people, and think of what they, as people, are interested in, what kind of videos they would like to watch and what kind of post they would share, the magic happens. Newcastle magic. Dove magic.

When marketers forget about the brand and remember that they are, themselves, people, and think of what they, as people, are interested in, what kind of videos they would like to watch and what kind of post they would share, the magic happens.

The internet has given us so many things to talk about. When brands find their subject, the things people want to discuss with them, they’ve struck gold. I myself devote my days to finding the brand I work for things to talk about— and I don’t have to guess if I’m right: the number of retweets will tell me. It’s still a long process, but every once in a while I read a comment that says “I’m gonna open an account in this bank because of its social media”, and I can see it’s not such a long process.

When a brand stops advertising and starts publishing, it begins to find its place in the new world. I have many times said that social media is a job best done by journalists than advertisers — journalists are trained to listen, and have a great gauge for relevance. If brands can get out of the proverbial cave of shadows and start living among real people, they have a shot at claiming the all-desired relevance.

Otherwise, we’ll just keep training our eyes and ears to filter out the noise, regardless of whether we’re in YouTube or Netflix, Facebook or Instagram. We’ll keep finding our new spaces and brands will continue to invade them, like the investment banking crew at a hip club — good for nothing except picking up the tab.

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