RIDING THE RUNAWAY NEW-MEDIA COW; WHY AGENCIES SHOULDN'T RUSH HEADLONG INTO THE WILD INTERACTIVE FUTURE

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Recently, while writing a speech on "Advertising and the New Media-What's Coming in the Year 2000?" I spotted a store window on Madison Avenue featuring illustrations from the book "Tintin in Tibet." A cop shouts, "Where d'you think you're going?" And a panicked bloke, clinging to a runaway bovine, yells back: "I don't know! Ask the cow!" Suddenly I had my title.

Ad agencies are strapped to the new-media cow, and it's going God knows where. In a search for answers, I faxed a new-media questionnaire to the CEOs of 12 huge ad agencies and-surprisingly-got 11 responses.

Defining "new media" as online services, CD-ROMs and interactive TV, my fax asked: "In five years, to what extent will new-media alternatives have altered your agency's allocation of media?" Nine CEOs said new media would have "some effect." Not exactly a tidal wave for new media.

Another fax question: "If consumers begin to divert time to new media, from which traditional medium will they steal the biggest chunk of time?" Eight CEOs guessed TV would take the hit.

Of course TV's the likely victim-the average American spends four hours a day watching it. Which suggests another question: "In five years, how much leisure time will the average American spend with new media?"

Here's my guess. Excluding movies on demand (essentially just another way to watch HBO), I'll predict that by 2000 the average American will spend 10 minutes a day with new media. And I'm probably being very generous.

After all, the mass market is very mass. Average Americans work hard. They're not college graduates (fewer than 20% of U.S. adults are). And they do spend those four hours a day watching TV.

I don't think "Louie," a sanitation worker home from his grinding seven-hour shift on city streets, is likely to open a Bud and flop down in front of the CD-ROM player. I'll bet Louie sticks with "Monday Night Football" or "Roseanne" or his well-thumbed copy of Sports Illustrated. He's just not a prime candidate for the digital information pump-whatever form it takes.

Certainly, a big slice of America's computer elite will spend an hour or two each evening in digital bliss, but they'll amount to a clever little niche. When they're measured and averaged along with that huge number of "Louies" and "Louises," my guess stands at 10 minutes a day.

In this country today there are just two mass "image" media. Only TV and magazines give national advertisers the tools they need to quickly extend a pervasive image-building message-in color-to tens of millions of average Americans. The much-touted new media will barely make a dent in the massive persuasive power of magazines and TV.

In particular, TV, the non-interactive tube, will not yield much of its four-hour chunk. There are three reasons:

First is P.E.R.-Passive Emotional Reward. TV spoonfeeds you the sitcom's laughs, the sporting event's thrills, the drama's nail-biting tension, all while you sit there quietly. But interactive media are work-you have to think. And emotional reward? Chat groups may chatter out an occasional yuk, but cyberspace isn't famous for laughs, thrills or chills.

The second reason is F.A.T. The tube qualifies (sorry to say) as a Family Activity Thing. "What'd you do last night, Martha?" "Oh, we all watched TV." But go interactive and you're flying solo; subtle family pressure will put limits on your antisocial activity.

The third reason is V.C.R. Today, 75% of U.S. households own a VCR. But they mostly play rented tapes.

Ten years ago, a great fear in Advertising Land was "time shifting." People would record "Murphy Brown," then play it back whenever they wanted-zapping out all commercials. Well, it didn't happen. (Tell the truth: Can you set your VCR to record something next Thursday at 6 p.m.?) So will technophobic average Americans eagerly embrace the infobahn's technology? No way.

P.E.R., F.A.T., V.C.R. Those nine initials explain why, in the year 2000, new media will remain a nice little boutique reaching a selective group of upscale, educated types. And if you don't believe me, well, ask the cow.

Mr. Emmerling is chairman-chief creative officer of Emmerling Post, E-mail him at EmmPoJohn@aol.com.

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