Commentary & Analysis
Chaos in Control
There is no shortage of books on the market about the sea change in media, as the world continues its inexorable march from offline to online, a topic that, bookwise, is perhaps rivaled only by the supposedly imminent destruction of the world on December 21, 2012. (I wouldn’t expect that to be a particularly brisk Christmas shopping season.) But while 2012 will not be the end of the world as we know it (however fine we may feel), the changing media landscape is the end of the world—the end of the old world of mass media and mass marketing, and of a time when marketers could dictate the message.
By Richard Romano
Published: November 6, 2009
There is no shortage of books on the market about the sea change in media, as the world continues its inexorable march from offline to online, a topic that, bookwise, is perhaps rivaled only by the supposedly imminent destruction of the world on December 21, 2012. (I wouldn’t expect that to be a particularly brisk Christmas shopping season.) But while 2012 will not be the end of the world as we know it (however fine we may feel), the changing media landscape is the end of the world—the end of the old world of mass media and mass marketing, and of a time when marketers could dictate the message. These changes have very drastic consequences for anyone in the communications business. It’s hard to see the big picture from ground level, which is why we often need a bird’s-eye view of what is happening—and the ability to see over the horizon.
Books galore speak about the revolution and evolution of media—David Meerman Scott’s The New Rules of Marketing and PR or his latest World Wide Rave do an excellent job of painting the changing landscape. However, for my money (and it was my money), one recent release that should be required reading for anyone in the business of marketing, advertising, creating content, or, heck, just basically existing in the 21st century, is Bob Garfield’s The Chaos Scenario, subtitled “Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, The Choice for Business is Stark: Listen or Perish.”
Garfield is a longtime writer for Advertising Age magazine, and his weekly AdReview column dissects—often quite mercilessly—TV commercials currently in rotation. Reading about ads I have thankfully never seen makes me exceedingly glad that my television broke, and gives me little impetus to get it fixed.
The Post-Advertising Age and the Death Spiral
But, as one of the major themes of the book has it, that may be a moot point. Garfield writes that we are fast approaching what he calls a “post-advertising age.” That is, a time when advertising—or, more specifically, display advertising—is simply an inefficient way of reaching consumers and of making money for publishers or other content creators and disseminators.
Broadcast and cable television is the poster child for this trend, and shows the media “death spiral” in action: audience fragmentation and ad-skipping (i.e., TiVo) stimulate advertiser exodus, which leads to a money exodus, which leads to the erosion of quality content (i.e., fewer scripted dramas and comedies, more cheap and boneheaded reality shows), which further stimulates audience defection and fragmentation, which steps up advertiser exodus...and on and on... Garfield focuses on television, but the same death spiral is playing out in other media, as well. Newspapers and magazines, for example.
There are a number of factors that are contributing to the death of advertising and the media they support. The first is the basic law of supply and demand. That is, the Internet—unlike television, radio, print, and other decidedly finite media—has a potentially limitless inventory of ad space. This is a problem even for something like Google’s AdSense: the glut of ad space online drives down the cost of ads. Even highly trafficked sites can’t generate enough ad revenue to be sustaining, let alone profitable. One good quote (p. 44): “The three most widespread Internet phenomena—Facebook, Twitter, and...YouTube—haven’t among them earned enough ad revenue to get a sailor in trouble on a three-day liberty.”
The other factor contributing to this death spiral is ad avoidance. This should come as a shock to no one, but people generally hate advertising. Garfield cites a Pew Research study that essentially found that the prevailing sentiment is that “all ads are spam.” He uses as one vivid example São Paulo, Brazil, at one time probably the most heavily-billboarded city on the planet. Think of Times Square only exponentially more so. The city decided the billboards were contributing to urban blight and instituted a drastic “de-billboardification” program, and now there is scarcely an ad to be seen. The result? 65% of the public said they were “delighted” to have been rid of the ads. QED.
New advertising strategies often do more harm than good, too; studies have found that when it comes to online video, a 15-second “pre-roll” (that is, an unskippable ad shown before a video starts) “causes 8% of the audience to abandon the clip before it starts. A 30-second pre-roll sends 22% of the audience packing” (pp. 59–60). And overlays? Putting an ad in the bottom of an online video reduces page views by 17%.
The Broken Promise
The status quo has been what it has been because for decades, there has been a tacit agreement between broadcaster/publisher and viewer/reader. The viewer understood that advertising was the price s/he paid for free or subsidized quality content. They were captive audiences. This was the mutually self-sustaining model of mass media for most of the 20th century, and no one questioned it, because there was simply no alternative. However, technology has changed all that; the audience realized they no longer have to endure advertising they don’t want to see. Hence TiVo (not a new concept, but the old VCR was a more laborious way of taping and playing TV shows), and hence the Internet. Garfield says that “The U.S. penetration of ad-avoiding DVRs will soon  reach the point [40% of households] at which 40% of advertisers say they will dramatically reduce their TV buys. If they do as they say, and nothing more, the broadcast TV business is over” (p. 30). Of course, that’s what they say. Would they actually pull the trigger? It’s entirely possible.
One popular story from the book has been passed around virally, but it bears echoing here.
Jan Leth, executive creative director of OgilvyInteractive North America...tells a funny little story about an agency assignment for Six Flags.
“They had a promotion for their 45th anniversary. They wanted to give away 45,000 tickets for opening day to drive traffic. So we got a brief to do whatever: ads, microsite, whatever. But our interactive creative director just went off and posted it on Craigslist. Five hours later, 45,000 tickets were spoken for. No photo shoot. No aftershoot drinks at Shutters....Now, the trick is, how do you get paid?” (p. 48).
The implication is clear: “Ad agencies are simply not organized in a way to profit from modern means of connecting with consumers.” What does the future hold for the ad agency? It needs to rethink how best to facilitate the relationship between business and consumer.
All of this is well and good, but is there a silver lining in any of this?
Listen to What the Man Said
In a way, yes, via what Garfield calls “Listenomics” (which is what he originally wanted to title the book, but after Wikinomics, Freakonomics, and Superfreakonomics, he thought there were too many “omics” books out there). That is, understand that the consumer, the viewer, the audience is in control of the message, and that they are not to be dictated to any longer.
Garfield cites as prima facie evidence of this his long battle with Comcast. He recounts a not unusual story of bad service, poor customer relations, and general corporate idiocy in his attempts at getting the company to actually provide a service for pay. In frustration, he began a Web site called ComcastMustDie.com, where other aggrieved customers could share their horror stories. The most remarkable thing about the episode was that Comcast actually paid attention to the site, and contacted those who had posted there and helped resolve their problems. Obviously, the strategy was to “grease the squeakiest wheels” and not necessarily change any of the institutional problems that inspired the arias of customer dissatisfaction. Still, it was a step in the right direction. If the giant corporation hasn’t changed overnight, just remember that an aircraft carrier can’t exactly turn on a dime.
Dell also had similar customer-relations issues and turned itself around to become more customer-centric. Every customer now has a platform to rail—or, on occasion, praise—a brand. Companies no longer control their own message. And anyone with the merest rudimentary knowledge of search engine optimization can get their complaint site listen on the same page of Google as the company they are railing against—perhaps even above it. As Garfield paraphrases Mark Twain, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys zeros and ones by the barrel. Which, nowadays, is everyone.”
In terms of harnessing the crowd for marketing and promotional terms, that can be a good thing. Because, says Garfield, as much as people may hate advertising, “people care deeply—sometimes perversely—about consumer goods....What they don’t like is being dictated to about what they should care about or when they should be caring....They want the information on their terms” (p. 46). Which is why search advertising has been the shining beacon of online advertising. It’s functional, and it gives people the information they are, by definition, searching for.
Garfield also calls “widgets”—small, branded, free applets that can be downloaded to a desktop—“the apotheosis of digital marketing” or “the highest expression so far of online marketing in the post-advertising age” (p. 113). Why? “When you can combine utility with the purpose of your brand, that’s the opposite of why people hate marketing” (p. 116). He doesn’t mention iPhone apps, but I would include them in the same category.
If They Come, They Will Build It
When Garfield says that people often care perversely for products, he means that people often become very passionate about certain items and specific brands. YouTube contains terabytes of self-made videos promoting—without being solicited or paid in anyway—certain companies and products. People are fans. Entire Web sites are devoted to certain brands or items (such as, inexplicably, www.moisttowelettemuseum.com). One iPod fan spent half a year crafting a commercial for the music player, which was then posted to YouTube. Apple could very well—should very well—have threatened legal action, but realized, as some companies are starting to recognize, as Garfield says, “the enormous value of a scrupulously protected brand may be exceeded by the value of an open source one” (p. 214). It’s an increasingly open source world, and a hardcore fan of a brand is literally that company’s best friend, and will engender more positive feelings from other consumers than the company would recoup with a lawsuits.
Garfield devotes much of Chapter 8 to Lego, and how the plastic block company harnesses the creative power of Lego devotees round the world to help them develop new products and technologies. When the company discovered that fans had hacked and reverse engineered the code for Lego robots and then circulated it online, they made a crucial decision: they did nothing. No cease-and-desist, no phalanx of attorneys. They recognized that Lego aficionados were not being malicious; they were fans, and were using this new “open source” code to expand the capabilities of older products and develop newer ones. As a result, a dozen Lego devotees were invited to Denmark—at their own expense—and offered the opportunity to collaborate on the design and development of new products. This is the very heart of Listenomics.
The “Wisdom” of Crowds
Collective filtering (good), user-generated advertising (generally awful), and crowdsourcing (a mixed bag) are all given their respective chapters. He speaks about one particular type of crowdsourcing that is not without controversy in professional graphic design circles: sites such as crowdSPRING.com, a type of graphic design auction house where people in the market for graphic design work post the specs of a job and how much they are willing to pay. The idea then is for designers to submit their ideas, the customer chooses the one they like, and that designer gets paid. The rest have, it turns out, done design work for nothing. CrowdSPRING is open to amateurs and professionals alike; all that matters is whether the customer likes the end result. Needless to say, not everyone is a fan of this “commoditization” of design—as if it hasn’t been happening for more than a decade as it is. In fact, Garfield used CrowdSPRING to solicit designs for the cover of his book. And, it could be argued, it shows. Chacun a son goût. As he explains:
The democratization of supply is a double-edged sword. The economics of commissioning work from outside the walled gardens of established institutions has the potential to undermine the business model—i.e., destroy—entire industries. Such, though, is the toll of revolution (p. 186).
Funny, though. In the very next chapter he complains that soliciting user-generated advertising in very much the same way is a waste of effort: “Citizen ‘creatives’ tend to be amateurish versions of professional creatives” (p. 207). The same could be argued—by those who are professional designers—about the amateur “creatives” on CrowdSPRING. But since Garfield is a TV advertising critic, and not a designer, bad TV ads irk him more than bad design does. I guess it depends whose ox is being gored, as my aunt is wont to say.
Ultimately, it’s not just about media and advertising. The Chaos Scenario arguably applies to almost every aspect of 21st century life. “The point is that everything is turned upside-down.”
The Chaos Scenario is a provocative read, and while it’s hard to agree with all of Garfield’s points and predictions, none are wildly implausible, and in many cases is not a matter of if something will happen (the death of display advertising, for example), but rather when. It’s a great way to start a debate—important debates about the future of media, marketing, and business in general that more people need to be having. The book goes a long way toward highlighting the fundamental changes in our relationships with media and with businesses in general, which has far-reaching implications for any business attempting to attract new customers.
If the book has a weakness—and this is me being picayune, perhaps—it’s that it really could have benefited from a copy editor and a proofreader. But then perhaps the typos and other errors are all part of the chaos.