In Essays, Innovation

A recent study of UK consumers found that “only 11% state that they enjoy advertising.”

I’m surprised the number was so high.

Advertising was never supposed to be entertaining; it was conceived as an interruption, or a necessary evil to be endured so that we could pay less for newspapers and nothing for radio and TV. Nobody woke up in the morning hoping to consume more advertising.

Its purpose, as noted by ad great David Ogilvy, was to sell. Period. He said:

“When I write an advertisement, I don’t wan you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

Not everyone accepted such a unforgivingly capitalist view of advertising, even back in the mid-twentieth century. An entire alternate view of ads claimed that creativity was, in fact, the measure of success, and metrics for selling things other than actually selling things were invented to affirm it (like awareness and entertainment value). Creative awards herald them to this day.

But that was (and is) mostly an industry of would-be artists, novelists, and screen writers talking to themselves. The consumers who “liked” ads were the ones who bought the stuff they sold, whether or not they consciously felt any affection for the content that inspired their behaviors.

Great ads helped make money for companies. They didn’t necessarily win praise from fellow advertisers.

Times have changed, of course. There’s much more competition for consumers’ attention, driven both by content and channels; conversely, data are available that can pinpoint individual needs at any given moment, so there’s been a bifurcation in advertising, with one track pursuing delivery of highly targeted sales messages, and the other using more broad distribution to double-down on artsy entertainment.

Turns out that consumers aren’t happy with this evolution.

More than half of the respondents to the study objected to being targeted based on their past online activity, and nearly three-fourths of them complained that they see the same ads “over and over again.”

Separately, the lasting commercial benefit of the world’s most creative ads, or those watched on event-viewing programs like the Super Bowl, approaches the half-life of a gnat.

At its most fundamental level, advertising remains a medium for which companies pay for time to put something in front of consumers that might nudge them closer to buying something, whether a product, service, or idea.

David Ogilvy and his like-minded contemporaries operated in the fog of an analog world. Consumer targeting was a blunt mechanism. Distribution channels were, too, and the entire process of ad creation was based less on objective science, and more on the vagaries of personalities and circumstance.

The output of their efforts regularly failed, and the reasons for those shortcomings were often as hazy as the explanations for why other ads succeeded.

Except for one metric: The “best” ads sold stuff.

So what’s the point of advertising?

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