This startling news flashed across my computer screen recently in an e-mail from Vanessa, my stepdaughter in California, and it got me to thinking. Neither the 25-year-old nor the 81-year-old particularly likes computers.
Much as we hate to admit it, most people don't. Neither of these two particularly likes commercials or ads either, much as we hate to admit that.
CALLING HELP LINES
Both have spent inordinate amounts of time on various help lines or calling geekish friends like me to help them get their computers to do what they want them to do. Which is mostly just simple e-mail and word processing.
To me, they represent the future of technology marketing far more accurately than the vaunted "power user" we spent so much blood, sweat and gold trying to reach. Because the most promising markets for new technology as we slouch toward the next millennium are individuals much like them, who are more interested in what they want to do than what a computer can do.
For Grandma, it's using Pathfinder and visiting CNN Interactive and, of all places, the Akron Art Museum. She doesn't know the difference been a URL and a PPP, but she knows accessing the World Wide Web the way she's been doing it is too slow and painful, and she wants someone to fix that. If someone tells her the problem is a slow modem, she'll buy a new one, and probably trust the nice salesperson to tell her which one to buy.
Nearly 20 years ago, I heard someone say something I've heard on a weekly basis ever since: "Engineers are human beings, too."
That's why Intel, in the late '70s, began running a breakthrough campaign using illustrations by Nagel, the slightly twisted fashion artist. It brought the house down in Silicon Valley. And it grabbed the attention of a couple of young geniuses who were looking for an ad agency to sell their new computer-Steves Wozniak and Jobs-while they were still toiling in the garage.
At about this time, I was privileged to be working on ads for the very first personal computer, the MITS-Altair. We felt it was the beginning of a revolution and did a bunch of ads that said so, but the client said he didn't want this computer mistaken for a "hobbyist machine" and refocused all the work on small business messages with lots of specs, speeds and feeds.
My client went out of business shortly, and I found myself working for those guys from the garage.
Since then, I've grown gray thinking about the future. First the future of the '80s. Then the future of the '90s. Now the future of the . . . what? The '00s?
Way back in 1984, we did a commercial by the same name based on the theory that since all media was becoming consumer-controllable, you had to go for the "bounce." That is, you had to do something so dramatic you'd generate word-of-mouth and, hopefully, lots of press coverage. It was a risky strategy and it worked. Once.
A year later, we tried the same thing with a commercial called "Lemmings" and the "bounce" went bad. On our heads, in fact. We got staggering awareness and word-of-mouth, but everyone started asking a question coined in another commercial of that era: "Where's the beef?"
We nearly put a very fine company out of business a decade before they decided to do it for themselves, and wound up getting Advertising Age's "Agency of the Decade" fired in the process.
If I was worried about every TV shipping with a remote control way back when, I'm even more worried now. Most of the people I work with in advertising, not just inside the technology business, are virtually advertising immune. We watch rented movies or cable if we watch television at all. In our cars, we only listen to the radio until we hear a traffic report, and then switch back to CDs of our favorite tunes or tapes by Sogyal Rinpoche. If I ever do watch commercial TV, it's either CNN International inTechnology won't alter consumer ad use
some god-forsaken hostelry on the wrong side of the dateline, or "low stress" TV, which can be anything from the sex life of the hedgehog to the history of the Martin bomber.
TUNE IT OUT
The fact is that consumers-that is, everyone but Ralph Nader-treat advertising like damage in the worldwide information and entertainment web and simply route around it.
Occasionally, people who are in shopping mode route directly to it. They read ads to learn. Or to confirm the wisdom of a purchase they've already made.
How will technology change all this? It won't.
The 200-year-old game of cat and mouse between me trying to get my client's message into your head and you trying to have a nice day will go on. I will still have to catch your interest, engage your attention, and excite you to buy sooner rather than later.
The good news is that technology will both accelerate and deepen the process. Instead of sending in a coupon for a brochure, you can double click on the ad. Or even the commercial. Instead of going to your store to buy, you can order now. And if what you're buying is made of ones and zeroes, which can be anything from The Wall Street Journal to Doom III to Microsoft Works to an Iggy Pop retrospective to Robert Alter's new translation of Genesis, you can buy it now.
The bad news is that advertising will become ever easier to avoid. (There are even simple shareware programs available now to edit the advertising banners out of your favorite web sites.) It will be ever easier to separate content from advertising.
So the most powerful media in the next century will be media you can't avoid. Outdoor and out-of-home and in-your-face.
You may be able to program your car radio to play only heavy metal and traffic reports, but no technology yet exists to shield your eyes from the Calvin Klein ads on the side of a bus.
In a world of information overload, brands will become ever more important. Icons with virtual memory, brands save time. I may have intelligent agents that can go out and assemble pages of reports on every camcorder on the market, but I don't have time to read them. I'll buy Sony.
In a world of disintermediation, where the distance between interest and purchase is measured in mouse clicks, integration becomes enormously important.
So general advertising, direct marketing, interactive and sales promotion must converge.
MUST UNDERSTAND QUESTIONS
You want the people who create your ads to understand what questions the customer will have, and be able to respond in the same spirit and tone of voice right down to closing the sale and creating a relationship after purchase.
Because lack of integration will be immediately obvious, customers who sense a change of spirit, tone or promise will be inclined to feel manipulated or misled.
The agencies that get this and figure out how to do it well will prosper and grow. Those that don't-and continue optimizing their talent and salary structure around the production of the 30-second spot-won't.
Steve Hayden oversees the world's largest tech advertising account as president of worldwide brand services on IBM at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York. He formerly worked on Apple Computer as chairman-chief creative officer at BBDO in Los Angeles. At Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, Mr. Hayden wrote Apple's "1984," hailed by Advertising Age as the greatest commercial ever.