Is a World Without Ads Possible? We’re already halfway there.

“What if there were no ads?” That was the question content marketers Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi asked in an episode of their podcast, This Old Marketing. It sounds like the start of John Lennon’s Imagine, but for marketers. What if there were just no ads?

It’s a simple question, but in truth even defining what an ad is takes some doing. Sure, paid media placements are ads; but what about sponsorships (PR), copyrighted papers (content marketing), names conspicuously on products (trademarks), or even the distinctive shape of products (trade dress)?

When I worked with brand-protection leader Thomson Reuters, we had a parlor game. In any given room we’d count how many trademarks we could spot. From marks on clothing, books, even fire extinguishers it was rare we’d ever see less than a half dozen. In public places this would be more, in Times Square it would be in the hundreds.

Rose and Pulizzi suggest advertising is built in to life, that on some level it’s how people navigate our increasingly complex world. This is both a great observation and a little bit unnerving in what it says about the chaotic media environment we live in.

When Content is Plentiful, Advertising Looses Power
The paradoxical effect of this media maelstrom is that the proliferation of content choices has made advertising a far smaller part of consumers’ lives. Media consumption has never been higher but at the same time seeing ads has never been more elective. That’s because of choice. Media is simply more interesting than advertising. The proliferation of choice shifts the power balance between consumers and publishers, cutting against the self-declaratory ad.

Back in the ‘80s, when my friends and I gathered in dorm rooms to watch Hill Street Blues on Thursday nights, you could reach an 80-share of American households with just three ads. We were fish in a finite media barrel, unable to escape ad messages and their repetition. That condition of scarcity made concentrated ads and their repetition easy. Back then saying you were “cheaper, faster, hipper” sufficed. Nobody talked back; there were limited choices, and repetition worked.

Fast forward to today, when it would take nearly 120 ads to reach that same audience. The age of Brand You is awash in social media self-absorption, and it seems nearly everyone is a broadcaster, advertiser, viewer and consumer all at once. Consumers duck advertising (Netflix), fast forward over ads (thanks TiVo and Aereo), or take it in far smaller measure (Pandora). And consumers broadcast to each, disrupting the monologue of the past. Advertising’s role as cultural role-model and authority is now shared with an ever broader array of figures gaining an ever narrower notoriety.

But does that mean that advertising’s days are numbered? Inconceivable.  See the next post for details.

 

 

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