Advertising's Punch Bowl, Round 6

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Ad prof Jim Twitchell and the anonymous CD who calls himself the Phantom Menace square off for the final round of the Punch Bowl, and the hamsters are flying.

PM to JT:

Yo Jimbo, care to give me your whassup on the now waning deluge of dot-commers who have saturated the American public with more sensory overload in three years than the Medicis managed to inflict on the Italians in 300? If not for the recent downturn in the high-tech market, I would wager that the next president of the United States could get elected on a platform exclusively devoted to ridding the airwaves of every last trace of this digital dungheap. Of the hundreds of dot-coms who threw money into huge ad campaigns, how many have actually emerged as real players? How many agencies can claim that they provided real value in building a brand, or that they differentiated their client from the competition? And how many simply took a young industry with green and naive marketing rookies for the biggest ride since the Piltdown man? The ad industry proved once again that with all its branding expertise and research-tested scientific methodologies, it is still at heart a bunch of take-the-money-and-run flimflam artists; that they care more about distracting and entertaining us with a trained-monkey act than informing us of the value (or lack thereof) of the snake oil. I guess in this post-ironic age, there is no longer any value to a product demonstration, or a unique selling proposition or at the very least a reason to buy based on need, desire or interest. Just make 'em laugh and they will come. Or will they?

JT to PM:

Everything you say is true. Absolutely everything. So now you know you're in trouble. Yes, clients got, and are getting, hosed. Spend an hour watching ads on one of the daytime financial networks and you take away two impressions. Ads are being created by 12-year-olds, and nothing they're doing is building brands. A lot of the ads are memorable, however - for the raucous bad taste. OK, now go to prime time on the networks and check out the ads. You take away two things. Ads are being created by 80-year-olds, and nothing they're doing is either memorable or exciting. It's got no taste. I'll take the puerile, sophomoric frivolity of the dot-coms over the bland, dreary driveling of their demented elders. Nobody is being gulled. The clients know what's in store for them. Remember it has always been the client - for example, John Wanamaker and Lord Leverhume - who complain that "half of my advertising dollars are wasted, I just can't figure out which half." So now the percentage is lifted - how does about 90 percent sound?

Dot-coms have no choice but to advertise because they're all selling the same product, be it a search engine, a discount broker or some Website. Everything on the Web mimics the same thing elsewhere on the Web. Forget USP. Forget product demonstration. Forget Advertising 101. This stuff can't be branded. All you can do is pour money on it and pray. I say settle back and enjoy it, Phantom. It'll go away soon enough and we will reminisce fondly about the airborne hamster, the kid with the orange hair, and that girl with the pneumatic breasts who likes daytrading. The money's not to be made on the Web. The medium is just too damn cheap and democratic. The money to be made is in advertising that's on the Web. And these clients have a lot of hot money. Let 'em spend it. It makes them feel good. No harm, no foul. And it's produced some of the most entertaining vulgarity since the sideshow was destroyed by television.

PM to JT:

Entertaining vulgarity . . . hmm, now what does that say about the state of advertising in America today? Then again, perhaps you've made my point better than I have. What's the fun in thinking about, watching or talking about advertising that isn't entertaining? None. But who's got what at stake here? Who's paying the price for all this fancy tickling? Good advertising is only good if it's good business. The only people who appreciate creative advertising for its own sake are the ones who make it and the ones who watch it as eye candy. How many times have you heard people talk about ads they like without being able to remember the product? Advertising should inform and motivate - if it entertains, that's icing. But perhaps I'm not hip and cool and non-judgmental enough to simply sit back and enjoy it. And that, I take it, is your point. That nothing but icing is OK. Fine. Have it your way - if you've got a product that is the equivalent of a cakeless cake, then maybe all you need to worry about is the color and flavor of the icing. But if I'm starting a real business, investing a lot of time and money and energy into making it a success, and my agency tells me that all I really need is a little entertaining vulgarity, then I either deserve to fail or should be forgiven for wanting to shoot that agency idiot.

JT to PM:

If there's no real cake (no distinct product to sell) and only icing to offer (no possible product differentiation, so USP advertising won't work, ergo: advertainment), why do rational people act with such irrational exuberance? Why do clients piss money away, and why do agencies act like urinals? You think the participants are crazy. I think they're sane, up to a point. What choice do they have? Look, in all other media, advertising helps underwrite the cost of delivery. Without a lot of ads, your newspaper would cost maybe three times as much as you currently pay. Without a lot of ads, there would be no "free" radio and television. But the Web can exist on spit. In economic terms, there are not enough costs for advertising to "underwrite." As it currently is, the Web is too damn cheap to be a good advertising medium. Period. It stinks. From the client's point of view, there is no point trying to deliver content cheaper to his target audience; it's already too cheap. And he can't put his ads in between content a la print and electronic entertainment, because there is no unique content. What to do? What else can he do? All he can do is pour money into other media and pray. And all agencies can do is take it and squander it. The only possible salvation is to quit worrying about whimsical privacy concerns and let agencies attempt to tie specific content consumption (tracking sites visited) with specific demographics (your name, address, income, interests), with specific advertising (one-to-one marketing or, better yet, one-on-one marketing). Call me a cheap whore if you want, but, from a historical perspective, this is gonna happen 'cause it gotta happen. Then things will calm down and we will wonder whatever happened to all those great entertaining ads for all those unknown dot-com products.

PM to JT:

Whimsical privacy concerns? That's easy for you to say since you're just a cheap whore, but in the time it took you to write that last post I've received e-mail from four online pornographers, two Internet music sites, an online retailer of advertising industry gossip and a company that for the last six months has been spamming me with offers to subscribe to an online magazine that promises to make me rich with stock market tips and fool-proof investment strategies. But the worst of it is that ever since I ordered a couple of bubble-gum rock CDs as a gift for a friend's 8-year-old daughter, I've been getting at least five offers a day to save money on the latest from Britney Spears and 'N Sync. I'm beginning to understand why those people on Survivor volunteered to humiliate themselves in front of millions of television viewers. It wasn't for the money or fame - it was to get away from all this crap.

JT to PM:

Well, OK, I feel your pain. Things are not working out exactly as I would like with online targeted selling. Still, given a choice between haphazard advertising that tells you nothing and advertising that tells you something, the latter is acceptable. Isn't it? As the redoubtable Dr. Samuel Johnson said in 1759, "Advertising, in the final analysis, should be news. If it is not, it is worthless." I agree with you, crap is crap. But I love looking at the ads in my golfing magazines just as you probably enjoy the ads in The Daily Worker. That merging of materialism and desire is a guilty pleasure of mine. Ditto for most of the rest of the world. A guy can hope the Internet moves in the direction of satisfying such desires, base as they may be. I'd happily exchange personal info in order to get ads custom-made for me, especially if it would keep me away from ads I don't want to see.

Just don't take those juvenile dot-com ads away yet. I miss that hamster.

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