The Death of Advertising

Autoplay video ads are popping up all over the internet. Facebook will be putting them in your feed soon (yet another reason to vacate Facebook for any serious purpose) But don’t take this as a sign of behemoth advertising dominating the internet. It’s the last gasp of a dying industry.

The real money in advertising isn’t in selling products, but in selling brands. Mass production and automation mean that, with the exception of only a very few items, most products are available very cheaply. If you need a pair of decent running shoes you can get them for around a fifth of the price of fashion statement Nikes. And the same is true across our weirdly out of whack consumer culture.

To keep the appearance of scarcity and hence value in their essentially valueless products, corporations employ branding. The Nike brand attaches sublime and transcendent value to crappy running shoes. Buy Nike and you aren’t just buying shoes, you’re buying an identity in the better world of the consumer culture. Buy a Breitling watch and you’re rubbing off just a little bit of World War 2 fighter pilot glory on your sad ass mid-level sales executive life.

Advertising exists as an industry only because of branding. It’s the talented creatives in advertising agencies – and one must concede the immense creative talented wasted in the flogging of consumer goods to the easily lead – who create the fantasies that establish brands in our imagination. Which is the only place they exist. And for five decades or so advertising has flourished on the back of the most powerful fantasy fulfilment device in human history.

The television is a spectacularly good platform for brand advertising. The vast glowing screen literally puts the viewer in to a state of semi-hypnosis, very similar to starring in to a flickering fire. In this suggestive state they (you) sit for hours watching channels of programming to induce specific emotional states – excitement, happiness, pathos and the like. “Interruption Advertising” can be inserted in to your mind at a time you’re must likely to be influenced. So, if that advertisement tells you young men are only attractive to young women if sprayed in Axe body spray, you’re likely to believe them and go buy some. Sex, fear, power and status are powerful components of advertising, but it’s the platform of television that carries them in to your subconscious dream state.

The internet is a shit platform for brand advertising. We look at it on tiny screens while doing other things, many of them also on those tiny screens. When we look at a big screen, we now usually have a tiny screen as well. Once audiences segue to the internet, they move to a medium where their attention may well never be singularly focused on one thing again. Worse yet for advertisers and their clients, the internet is a GREAT platform for product advertising. If I want a pair of running shoes I can find the ideal ones for my needs at the lowest price with a few google searches. And worse again, because the internet throws people in to extended social networks, it tends to keep people busy. The gaping void of need that brands cater to gets filled up with other things.

Advertisers and the brands they work for are getting desperate. That is the key message to take from the autoplay adds now populating websites. They are trying harder and harder to apply “Interruption Advertising” on the internet, and it simply isn’t working. The contest for your attention is being won by crazy cat videos, circular political arguments and checking your friend’s status updates. No one has time for brands any more, and the brands are starting to panic.

When brands eventually pull out of this model of advertising, which will happen much sooner than most expect, a large portion of the internet and the bulk of the advertising industry will implode. The legacy media brands are clinging on to reduced revenue streams from brand advertising, and you can expect many of the old TV networks and newspapers to snuff it when the internet advertising bubble bursts. And the effects of that bubble popping could reach very far indeed.

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