The Suicide Pact Between Marketing and Media

It’s Time to Reinvent Advertising. Or Else.

It’s like Romeo and Juliet, except less romantic. Marketing and media are in a suicide pact. And unless one of them breaks it, they’re both going to end up victims of one another’s folly.

Let me explain.

The last year or so has seen more or less the implosion of the US news media and the implosion of indie media. Scores of newspapers, blogs, independent publishers have had to shut down.

Why? They just can’t make a living anymore.

Why? Because digital ads are more or less worthless.

Why? Because no one really clicks them. Especially not people you want clicking ads.


Say I’m a bird. I know people don’t want me to poo on their heads. And yet I think: “Wait! What if I can just find the one person in this crowd who wants a turd? Then maybe I can get rich!”. So I go away and I rent Very Sophisticated Computer Models from Very Smart People. They tell me that the models can point me in the general direction of the Prize: the elusive person who really, really, wants my turd.

No one wants a turd.

The programs, models, Very Smart People. It’s all based on a terrible assumption. A foolish mistake. Hence, the industry’s in a war for “targeting”. That is, aiming the turds slightly better. You know those ads that follow you around the web like a psycho ex? That’s what I mean. Targeting war.

Aiming turds with perfect accuracy isn’t the problem. Here’s the problem.

Digital ads suck.

They’re like billboards plastered on your screen. But worse. Way worse. They suck up your resources. They do things you don’t want them to. They kill your battery, eat your valuable space, demand that click to make them go away. But why should you? What are they giving you? Nothing.

That’s the real issue. In this world, where I don’t have to see an ad if I don’t want to, the problem isn’t aiming a turd at me slightly better. It’s making ads that aren’t turds. Ads that, instead of sucking up my resources, energy, space, give me something in return.

What could an ad give me? It’s not rocket science, is it? An ad could teach me stuff, educate me, connect me with people, offer me services, remember my chores, help me with tasks, make my day a little easier, brighter, better, in a million different ways.

But the industry appears to be totally blind to this universe of possiblity. It’s busy spending millions, billions, trillions…aiming turds. That’s why it’s in a death spiral. The endgame of the targeting war that digital media’s locked into is….nothing. A microtargeted perfectly efficient turd has a value of what? Zero. The only thing the perfect computer model can discover about a turd is that no one wants one.

That is, the industry’s in one of the most foolish economic games in modern history. It is trying to reveal the value of a worthless thing. More and more desperately. Every year, it buys more and more sophisticated technology to try to reach this elusive goal. What’s my ad really worth, if it’s perfectly targeted? The answer is, and has always been: nothing.

All it is really doing is wasting time, money, and the effort of millions of creative people finding out what’s already obvious. A turd is worthless no matter how hard, fast, or neatly you can throw it. It’s worthless to begin with.

That’s the suicide pact media and marketing are in.

People despise and loathe digital ads. Utterly and purely. And yet the industry’s finding ways to throw turds faster, harder, neater. So what? People are building giant domes over their gardens. That’s what ad blockers are. People don’t want ads.

But people do want things that expand their possibilities. Can “ads” do that? Sure. Why not? Ads could be, instead of digital billboards, turds splooshing down from the sky, intelligent things that help you actually accomplish things in life a little more easily, passionately, curiously, excellently.

The real question is this. Who will build them? And who will be the publishers that experiment with offering them? They’re going to invent the future of marketing and media.

Let’s admit it. Capitalism sucks when it comes to providing things that have real worth, like high-quality news. It struggles to offer those things, what economists call “merit goods, at the best of times.

And yet marketing isn’t living up to its potential. It’s failing you, me, society, the future, and the world. No, marketing isn’t going to save the planet. It’s not going to get us to the stars, give us immortality, or even offer us True Love. It’s just a bunch of people trying to sell stuff, after all. But marketing is responsible for a vibrant media, which safeguards democracy, that sustains prosperity, which builds the future. That sequence of events is important. Really important.

Marketing has a responsibility. To the world. In that small but very significant way. Can it live up to it? I think it can.

But it has to do better than spending all it’s time, effort, imagination, and money on aiming turds slightly better to get there.

August 2016

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