Why Those Little White Lies the Ad Industry Tells Itself Aren't Going to Help Fix Anything

Delusions About Advertising Don't Serve Us Well

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Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

When you work in or around an industry long enough, it's hard not to get caught up in groupthink and biases, or to not get defensive when it comes under attack. In the past two print issues of Advertising Age, I've used my space here (and in the editor's letter) to defend the general concept of advertising and to go so far as to suggest that industry players sue ad blockers out of existence.

I stand by those arguments. Advertising makes quality content affordable for the masses and it also sells things. Digital ad blocking, as it exists, is a form of extortion, not a form of consumer protection. So when someone hits you, you hit back twice as hard.

My point on the latter may have been muddied by my oh-so-clever analogy in which I portrayed content consumers as parasites.

Never mind that I made clear that the relationship was a symbiotic one -- they get free or cheap content from the marketers who pay for it. Never mind that I think symbiotic relationships in nature and media are weird and wonderful things.

Some people didn't see it that way. Rather, they saw it as a rah-rah, pro-advertising attack on consumers.

Here is an email I received:

"You utter, utter twat.
"You have no idea of personal computing, no idea of privacy, no idea how offensive the stuff your industry spews out is, no concept of how inanely useless your industry is at blocking bad actors, malware, spyware.
"I wish fervently, with all my heart, for the demise of the corrupt advertising industry.
"You loathsome little tick."

I appreciated the writer turning the parasite analogy back at me.

While I disagreed with the email, it was a useful reminder that some people don't like advertising. In fact, some people -- and not necessarily an insignificant amount -- hate advertising (and the people who create it).

This can serve as a useful corrective, particularly when we, as an industry, are in defensive mode and especially when coming out of an event like Advertising Week, where, in one concentrated time and place, all of our ambitions and dreams are on display. And our delusions.

And, boy, are there some delusions about advertising.

To hear it told, all the ad industry has to do to cure the ills of ad blocking, banner blindness, viewability, consumer indifference and more, is make advertising great again, to make it beautiful and useful and relevant. These are admirable goals. Ideally, advertising should be all of those things.

Let's acknowledge, however, the all-too-human tendency to remember some false golden age in the past, where all was right in the world. Sure, that "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen was great, as was the "1984" ad for Apple. But the truth is, 90% of the advertising in both the 1960s and 1984 was probably what even people in the ad industry would consider middling to garbage. There are a lot of amazing, brilliant, emotional ads (and ad-type things) being done today, some of them online, some of them on TV, some of them this weird thing called "content marketing." I've cried (in the good way) because of ads. Still, a lot of advertising out there ranges from bad to annoying.

It's also true that not all advertising is created equally. Some companies have to market things with ads in which puppies, penguins, little kids or hot models wouldn't make any sense.

One of the favorite examples of the "consumers actually love advertising" crowd is fashion advertising. People buy fashion magazines just to look at the ads.

This is true! No argument there. But last I checked, fashion makes up a very small slice of the marketing and content pies. It's not something that's exactly transferable. Readers opening a magazine to look at pretty people and the latest in fashion will no doubt be drawn by the pretty people and latest in fashion in the ads. No one gets overly worked up about the editorial-sales wall in these magazines because you never could tell the difference between content and advertising.

But no one is buying Sports Illustrated for chocolate milk ads or Newsweek for Viagra ads or Popular Mechanics for Craftsman ads. Well, maybe someone is, but I assume it's a very small percentage of the reading population. (And when you start trying to slide "native advertising" into news and science magazines, people will, rightly, get very angry.)

Another argument I've heard is that ads are useful. Marketing delivers messaging to people about products they may want or even need. This is also true!

Colonoscopies and oil changes are useful. It doesn't mean people like them. And it certainly doesn't mean that sometimes -- often -- they won't go out of their way to avoid them.

In a way, the ad-blocking debate has made us forget a lot of things, like the long history of consumers trying to avoid what you're slinging at them. Before the ad blocker, there was the DVR. Before the DVR, there was the VCR -- and HBO. And the remote control -- the original ad skipper. Even without a remote, as a child I'd walk over to the Zenith -- the one that had a 27-inch screen but took up about eight feet and weighed 250 pounds -- to change channels when ads interrupted "The Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" or "He-Man," which were basically the mid-'80s version of content marketing.

"Aha! See, content works," someone reading this probably just shouted. But again, not every product lends itself to a 20-minute cartoon treatment.

This isn't an argument about content vs. traditional advertising. It's a plea, while we go about trying to fix some very real problems in advertising, to remember that doomsayers may be overselling the ad apocalypse, but it still doesn't help to delude ourselves.

Consumers might like -- or even love -- an individual ad every now and then. But given a choice between ad-loaded and ad-free content, a consumer will always choose the latter (fashion magazines possibly excepted). It's the advertiser's job to work around that reality.

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