Adbashing: Surviving the Attacks on Advertising

By Jack Myers ThinkTank Archives
Cover image for  article: Adbashing: Surviving the Attacks on Advertising

Early advertising industry leaders such as Jerry Della Femina, Hal Riney, George Lois, Bill Bernbach and others correctly identified breakthrough "creativity" as the advertising industry's primary product for the 1970s, and the industry elevated its output to extraordinarily high levels of achievement. The fine distinction between advertising and art was often difficult to detect. Advertising followed the path of Raymond Rubicam's theory that "creative ingenuity" was the primary key to advertising success rather than David Ogilvy's proposition that advertising should sell products and not draw attention to itself.

In the 1990s, the structures, systems and processes by which we conduct business in the media and advertising industries are built upon the precedents established in the era of the "creatives." Ogilvy warned, in 1963, of the penalties that would be paid for an over-indulgence in creativity. In the last 30 years the advertising business has created precedents that are no longer relevant. If we look to the past for direction, we must first gain an accurate vision of the future and regain the capacity to respond to the changes taking place around us.

An inability to respond to change is the most certain path to failure. But before we can change, we must first believe that the future is worth planning and preparing for. We cannot sit back and long for a return to the lost world that Della Femina and his generation mourn.

Dr. Neil Postman, in his excellent book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, points out that the 19th and early 20th century capitalists… Rockefeller, Morse, Edison, Astor, Ford and Carnegie… had a vision of what the 20th century would be. Their greatest achievement, Postman believes, was not the technologies they created, but their ability to convince their countrymen that the future need have no connection to the past.

I believe that the single most important effort we can undertake in the advertising business is to step outside the box of our past. Change is upon us. The future is challenging us to act; to set a new course for how we organize our businesses, how we create advertising, how we analyze media, how we perceive the role of media and media companies, how we evaluate and measure success, how we go about understanding what the future will bring, and how we react to a vision of that future that is totally unlike anything for which our past has prepared us.

It is time to set a new agenda, built upon new principles and a commitment to re-establish advertising as a marketing tool for which we all – advertisers, agencies, media and researchers alike – take responsibility. This is an ambitious undertaking, but forces already are moving to set forth a new course for the future of advertising.

The More Things Change…

Do you automatically complete the cliché "The more things change…" with "…the more things stay the same?" In business, as in society, we no longer can depend upon stability or consistency. We no longer can expect things to stay the same. Too many businesses today are locked into traditional patterns, cycles and measures of success. These molds must be broken. Paradigms must be changed. Clichés must be discarded.

- "Some things never change."
- "Everything old is new again."
- "There's nothing new under the sun."
- "Turn, turn, turn."
- "The past is precedent."
- "All the world's a cycle…"

We need a new set of paradigms. Our comfortable clichés no longer hold. When we look back, we are held back – in society and in business. The past no longer provides us with adequate tools for building strategies for the future.

In a recent study, a simple old fashioned clock was shown to a large number of 13 year olds. More than one-third were unable to tell the researcher what time the clock indicated. It wasn't that they couldn't tell time, but they could only tell digital time.

This doesn't represent just a simple shift from one form of time to another. It reflects a way of thinking about life. The generations running government and business today – the generations who are creating advertising and communications – subconsciously think in cyclical terms. The new generation functions in a continuum.

Remember the old fashioned television sets with the dial - channels 2 to 13? Television once offered a limited selection of programs. The announcer could tell us "Don't turn that dial!" with a degree of assurance that we would obey. Like the watch, a TV "dial" is virtually obsolete for a majority of Americans. Television channel switchers are digital, as are our radios and our auto speedometers. The average home has more than 30 channels (1993), with a promise that the number will increase to 60 by the end of the decade. Many homes will have 150 channels! When I was growing up in the 1950s in Utica, New York, TV programming ended for the day after The Late Movie, at 2 AM. We listened to the Star Spangled Banner, saw the jets flying over the Statue of Liberty, and then had only a test pattern to pacify us until 6 or 7 AM, when stations formally signed on. On Saturdays in Utica, there was no TV until 9 AM, when the single local station signed on with Howdy Doody. Television, each day, had a beginning, a middle and an end.

Today TV never ends. One recent morning, I turned the set on at 4 AM and scanned 38 channels with nary a test pattern confronting me.

Society, too, is functioning within a new linear context in which the future is uncharted, new, and not dictated by precepts or perceptions of the past. Life is no longer a cycle; the future is no longer predicated by the past.

In the 1990s, consumers are becoming far more discriminating. Purchases are less conspicuous and far more considered. Society, like the tectonic plates in California, is shifting and resettling into new configurations. Marketers are hoping that the shifts are completed and consumers will settle into a new set of comfortable, somewhat traditional patterns.

But more than likely, the shifts are an early warning sign that far more cataclysmic changes are on the horizon. Marketers may be facing shifts in consumer and communications patterns for which there are no precedents and for which they are ill prepared.

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