New millennium must face our old problem: unproductive ads

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My hope for this new century -- forlorn though it may be -- is that the advertising industry makes greater strides than it did in the last century in learning what makes advertising effective.

We are not off to a very promising start I fear. Dot-com advertisers, fresh with cash and desperate to establish instantly recognizable brand names, are resorting to outrageous advertising that throws everything the industry has learned out the window. What's worse, other advertisers who should know better are all too anxious to follow their lead.

Amazon.com tripled its ad budget for the Christmas season, but its head man admitted, "We don't know if we need to triple our marketing spending, but we know we don't want to take a chance." Business Week adds that "seasoned ad executives, venture capitalists and brand consultants say a big chunk of the money [spent by the dot-com companies on ads] is being wasted."

It's as if there are no rules about what constitutes good advertising any more; maybe it's fitting that we seem to be reinventing advertising at the dawn of the 21st century.

Let's pretend that advertising is a brand new communications tool that somebody just thought up. What's its mission? Judging by the primitive work occupying much of our pages and airwaves, users of this curious new communications device seem convinced they can't influence potential buyers (if that's what they're trying to do) with a direct appeal to purchase what they're selling. Or sway them with a reason to buy -- no matter how scanty it may be.

Instead, advertisers seem to be trying to make friends with would-be customers by shocking or amusing them or otherwise doing the unexpected. "Anything to get attention for your brand" could be the definition of this untried new commercial force.

It's hard to believe anyone would give any credence to a message whose only purpose is to make you remember the name of a product or service -- when, in many cases, you aren't told what it does or what function it performs. That's especially so when it is carried in or by a media conglomerate intent on plugging every other media property it controls.

Books, movies, TV shows, magazines, wrestling, stock car racing, sports centers -- everything is a brand name and everything in one way or another is advertising.

The media environment of the 21st century is fast turning into one gigantic infomercial. Viewers and readers sense that the new media conglomerates -- without quite realizing who owns whom -- are more intent on furthering their enterprises in the pages of their magazines and on their discussion and talk shows than they are in presenting unbiased information.

"Worse still," wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times, "is the potential for conflicts of interest -- through sins of omission, commission or synergy. Should GE, Microsoft, Viacom or the rest suppress stories that affect their multitudinous businesses, our press is free in name only. Should such corporations pimp for their own products under the guise of `news,' it's not journalism -- it's advertising." Said another Times critic: "The fact is most people assume that the media is corrupted by big business."

You can look at this state of affairs in two ways. Viewers think the news side is already shilling for their media owner's deals, side deals and would-be deals (witness the stink over the L.A. Times' special magazine section on the Staples Sports Center, where both sides shared the profits). So people might consider advertising an unhidden persuader, up front and open about its mercenary objectives. Or they might think advertising is an integral part of the whole corrupt and pandering media system.

I'm not usually a member of the cup is half empty school, but I tend to support the latter explanation of how consumers will view advertising as we progress deeper into the 21st century. That makes the job of improving advertising productivity all the harder.

With practitioners, driven by the urgency of the dot-com companies, going to outlandish lengths to burn a warm spot in consumers' hearts and minds, and with consumers becoming increasingly skeptical of the media hype and hypocrisy, it's hard to conjure up a favorable scenario where advertising will flourish, much less become more effective.

But, what the heck, it had a good run.

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