Why We Need to Focus on Marketing to the Masses

And Here's a Tip: 'Useful' Will Be the New 'Cool'

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Steffan Postaer
Steffan Postaer
In the olden days enduring a sweep of commercials in order to receive free TV seemed like a fair deal. Some of us even liked the commercials, or loved to hate them anyway. Either way, we were acutely aware of advertising and easily motivated to consume. My mother used to buy Vogue not for its articles on the latest fashion trends, but to browse at all the pretty ads it contained.

It doesn't work like that anymore.

The internet age and the subsequent customization of everything have changed our world forever. And people don't have to endure anything but their mother-in-law. The profound problem with online advertising is that in a search-driven world, the advertiser's target is totally accustomed to navigating through sites to get to what he or she is looking for.

No matter what age or demographic, we all learned to use the internet by navigating it. Therefore, online advertising -- be it banners or anything with a "close" box -- are all merely hurdles to be navigated. This may seem like 101-type stuff to many of you but it bears repeating: No medium was designed so thoroughly around its user than the internet. Radio, TV and print are all projector mediums, meaning an active participant created content so a passive one could receive it.

While such a paradigm certainly exists online, the reality is people are "attached" to whatever it is they do online in ways those other mediums can't touch. Therefore, not only is online advertising completely annoying to the user it is also completely avoidable. All he has to do is follow his new best friend, Skip, as in "skip intro."

So what's an advertiser to do? Experts agree the solution is one of two things, likely a combination: Offer financial incentives or entertainment too irresistible to avoid.

But, dare I ask, is the internet ultimately advertising-proof? What if the end game is simply that small screens -- be they laptop, desktop or mobile -- just don't support advertising very well, and in fact, never will? And is it possible early online marketing success stories were false positives? I'm not just talking about the hot button cases like "Whopper Sacrifice" and "Subservient Chicken." I'm referring to all of them, every "fan," every "like" and every "follower." Likewise, all those views on You Tube. Especially all those views on You Tube. What if none of it makes a bit of difference at the cash register? There is evidence to support this view.

That would suck for us ad folks, wouldn't it?

On the other hand is offering financial incentives and/or irresistible entertainment. Are these not the same two options that constitute all successful advertising from the lowliest bench ad to a $2 million Super Bowl commercial?

I do think, however, that increasingly, extreme utility (Amazon) and customer service (Zappos) usurp the vast majority of online marketing shenanigans. At least that's how it works for me, when I'm in a buying mood. This summer I attended the Hyper Island Master Class (digital training for creative professionals). There, I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn't in terms of online marketing. "Useful," stated Saatchi creative director and class presenter Tim Leake, "will be the new cool." I completely agree.

Clearly, the modern creative will have to respect utility as much as high concept. Back when, the best creative ideas needed to sell as well as they amused. We now call the combination "engagement." Apparently, the old cliché still applies: the more things change the more they stay the same. Sort of.

What if, however, people became desirous of advertising? Like my mother buying Vogue for the ads, what if consumers made it a point to seek out advertising and even share it with their friends? That's what happened when Euro's Paris office, BETC, created a film for Evian, "Water Babies" that quickly became the most downloaded commercial ever -- over 135 million views at last count.

Still, that's an exception. What I'm talking about is a cultural sea change whereby we all come to look forward to and even embrace marketing messages. Is it possible? It better be.

This past summer Amsterdam-based agency Boondoggle, for its client the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium, created a social-media campaign in anticipation of the birth of a new elephant. For the eight-month gestation period of this Asian elephant the people of Belgium were riveted to their computer screens and, ultimately, the zoo. That's eight months of elephant-size marketing to a captivated nation, and all of it in real time. No other media could have accomplished this, not for all the Euros in Europe.

In a free marketplace one inevitably has to advertise. The fear of being left behind is too strong. In many ways the internet makes advertisers downright paranoid. With attention spans diminishing as everyone chews through content, a brand could wake up irrelevant. Whether this app or that online game actually generates sales is a conversation for the sidelines. Advertisers clamor for the new, new thing and we agencies, vendors and the like scramble to deliver it.

Steffan Postaer is chief creative officer at Havas' EuroRSCG, Chicago.
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