“It’s not advertising anything, damn it!” an irked father tells his son as they look at a rainbow arched over the Manhattan skyline. The now famous cartoon created by Charles E. Martin for “The New Yorker” illustrates not only how prominently advertising figures in our everyday life, but also how it has come to dominate the collective psyche.
The advertising industry first became a commercial phenomenon during the industrial revolution, when people began toying with the idea that mass communication could encourage mass consumption. Since then, the industry has undergone sweeping transformations, revitalizing and re-inventing itself to suit new challenges and new modes of human interaction.
Indeed, if one could point to any single characteristic of the industry that has allowed it to remain fresh, relevant and alive through more than three hundred years of technological progress and cultural change, it is flexibility.
Today, that characteristic is once again coming into play as advertisers confront yet another new challenge in the form of an audience that is constantly on the move.
Internet Advertising Brings Added Revenues
Around 34% of the world’s total population is now connected to the internet — and the number is growing faster than you can say kilobyte. Perhaps even more compelling, the UN claims there were already some six billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide in 2011 — almost as many subscriptions as there are people on the planet.
As expected, advertising for the digital media — which includes mobile devices and tablets — is proving fairly profitable. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) reports that global internet ad revenues hit the $17 billion mark in the first half of 2012, around 14% more than the earnings registered halfway through the previous year. This information alone is indicative of how advertisers are tapping into the industry’s much-vaunted flexibility to connect with an increasingly online and mobile consumer base.
When Less Means More in Advertising
There are, of course, inevitable risks — and they are many times more dangerous than they are for radio and TV. Old but still effective advertising tricks such as newsjacking — positioning a brand message in the context of a hot news topic — run a heightened risk of backfiring in a world of open, real-time interaction.
A cursory glance at any social website reveals how an advertising strategy can go irreversibly awry. When a clothing company ran a humorous advertisement in the context of social unrest in Egypt, for instance, incensed subscribers very publicly commented on how tasteless and insensitive they thought it was, given the situation in which it was positioned.
Fortunately, most digital advertisers have demonstrated sufficient flexibility. Many, in fact, have already begun to build a new set of expectations in engaging the social media:
- Generate conversations, not transactions;
- Build brand image rather than generate sales; and
- Create a positive buzz around your brand rather than sustain an all-out advertising campaign.
As one industry insider in Southeast Asia puts it, “Dramatic leaps in communications technology have changed the rules of the game. Consumers are now constantly bombarded with information they don’t really want — and so it’s very important to know when to shut up.”
There is today — as more and more advertisers are finding out — a thin line emerging between being persuasive and being tactlessly persistent.
Because the digital media offers advertisers the ability to communicate with consumers on a 24/7 basis, it has become clear to many in the industry that the heart of the challenge in advertising today lies not in knowing how to talk to an audience, but when not to.