Advertising as Content
If you could watch TV without commercials, would you do it?
Would your answer change if you found out that, in lieu of advertising, advertisers strategically placed products throughout the show hoping that it would subtly influence what you buy?
Would your answer change if you found out that this technique was 100% more effective than traditional TV commercials in influencing consumer behavior? 1000% more effective?
Based on the answers to those questions, here's the big one:
What's the purpose of advertising?
Of course the example is bogus. I have no illusions about product placement within the content of a show being 100 times as effective as television commercials -- even if the product is the "hero" of the show.
The point is to get us all to think about the nature of advertising, where we draw our limits for acceptability, and why.
There are a lot of people who equate advertising as an attempt to manipulate people -- which is of course exactly true. We are social beings, after all, and we cannot escape the nature in which people interact and try to influence each other.
Advertising reflects our social nature. It did not cause it.
But the problem is that they see any form of manipulation as exploitation, which is false. Sometimes.
It depends on the end to which people are being manipulated. Are they being encouraged to do something good (e.g., brush their teeth twice a day with cavity-fighting toothpaste) or something bad (e.g. run up credit card debt in pursuit of social status).
Is Exploitation Really So Bad?
It seems like such a silly question that it shouldn't even need to be asked. But when you consider that not all people agree on where to draw the line between what is good and what is bad, you realize a fundamental dilemma: One person's exploitation is another's informed consent.
And when you consider that people and advertisements are diverse enough to please and offend equal portions of both, you can begin to see why people distrust advertising in general.
Conscience is a Minefield
This is one of the principle reasons advertisers desperately covet the ability to communicate:
- the exact right message at
- the exact right time to
- the exact right person in
- the exact right way
In the same order, to deliver that it requires:
- knowledge of an individual's social and psychological makeup
- knowledge of or access to his schedule
- knowledge of his identity and location
- knowledge of his moral scruples
Most people are uneasy about anyone having all of this information about them, because they already fear the prospect of someone manipulating them. They distrust advertisers.
So maintaining a healthy respect for privacy and to maintain effectiveness, it seems advertising must be framed as something else. However, not all efforts to navigate this landscape have been welcomed with open arms.
Here are some of the tactics in use today:
Product placement is just one example of this. Some groups strenuously object to this practice, calling it deceptive. In any event, those engaging in product placements will need to determine if the rewards justify the cost and if it can be reliably predicted and duplicated.
Search engine marketing is also an example of advertising as content, but with SEM, at least the user has expressed an intent to be exposed to something that might answer his question, and the advertisements are clearly marked. Plus, it's easier to track the immediate effects in real time.
PayPerPost is an attempt to frame advertising as content, but since blogger backlash forced them to require bloggers identify their endorsements as advertising (and some other issues regarding compensation), I tend to be skeptical about its long-term viability.
Blogger outreaches are efforts to marry bloggers to the right opportunities, in the hopes that they may speak favorably of whatever it is the marketing effort is promoting. This is a dangerous game, too, if it is done wrong. Some companies have been skewered by a segment of the community for the slightest hint of impropriety.
Of these efforts, the common characteristics people tend to appreciate most are transparency and authenticity. Of course, with product placement in fictional television shows or movies, this is a bit trickier. Working through that maze is a post in itself.
Where Does This Leave Us?
There is no panacea of marketing. All approaches we've discussed have their difficulties. They risk effectiveness, capital, or by virtue of the PR effects of wrongheaded planning or execution, both.
What's important to remember is our responsibility to serve our audience and the common good as a whole -- insofar as the common good can be objectively identified. With that principle in mind, we can fearlessly proceed with our best understanding, even knowing we'll make some mistakes. We'll be certain to be listening the entire way so that when we do make a wrong turn, our audience will be sure to tell us which way we need to go.
If we've been treating them right all along and continue to treat them with respect throughout our recovery, they'll not hold our mistakes against us for long. - Cam Beck
Disclosure: The coke can was unopened in the photo above.