Caught in the Clutter Crossfire: Your Brand

Why Pollution Is Worsening Despite Cleanup Efforts

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First of a Two-Part Series

NEW YORK ( -- Somewhere between 254 and 5,000 is a number that represents just how many commercial messages an average consumer gets each day.
Illustration: John Kuczala

Attempts to beat clutter only end up yielding more of it, a bitter irony bound to have dire consequences for a business already struggling with questions of relevance and effectiveness. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

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There's no consensus on it, but just about everyone agrees on two things: It's way too high, and the industry's not doing anything to reduce its own overproduction.

That's our clutter problem -- and yours.

Shotgun blasts
Like a fly repeatedly bouncing off a closed window, the ad industry is trying to fix the problem by doing more of the same. That is, by creating more ads. What that absurdly cliched mission statement of "cutting through the clutter" has really yielded is an industry that shotgun blasts commercial messages into sexy new places as quick as it can identify them, whether it's emerging digital platforms or nooks and crannies in an increasingly buyable physical world -- dry-cleaning bags, coffee cups, door hangers and even houses. Yes, clutter is leading to more clutter.

But, you say, at least it's paring back on traditional media, right? Actually, TV commercial pods are fatter than they've ever been, and they're growing like a 14-year-old Xbox fan's waistline.

Attempts to beat clutter only end up yielding more of it, a bitter irony bound to have dire consequences for a business already struggling with questions of relevance and effectiveness. Put simply, the ad business is crushing itself under the weight of its own messaging, squeezing the effectiveness out of its product as consumers get more and more inured to the commercialization of their culture and surroundings.

"At the end of the day, the ability of the average consumer to even remember advertising 24 hours later is at the lowest level in the history of our business," said Bob Barocci, president-CEO of the Advertising Research Foundation. "We know that something's happened and we know the contributors."

Mad Ave's 16-car pileup
Clutter's not the only issue -- things like media multitasking and ad-skipping devices play roles. But it is the elephant in the room. Or maybe a more apt metaphor is a 16-car pileup that Madison Avenue's perfectly happy to rubberneck: pause just enough to recognize its existence without doing anything to fix it.

"We could discuss any topic in media and there would some room for debate," said Debbie Solomon, group research director at WPP Group's MindShare, and the author of the agency's annual study on increased commercial time in TV. "But not with clutter. Every study I've ever seen shows that it's a bad thing."

So if clutter's such a problem, why isn't there a clear, unified way of figuring out how to reduce it? A big reason is that clutter is usually viewed through the lenses of individual media, a way of looking that makes a bit of sense given that clutter affects each medium differently.

Research shows that a magazine reader looks at glossy ad pages rather favorably, as part of the editorial content, while a TV viewer is more likely to see 30-second spots as interruptions. Between those poles of acceptance and revulsion fall internet users, who are simultaneously hit with both scads of generic, untargeted ads and more finely tuned pitches that take into account behavior that gives some semblance of relevance to advertising.

Refocus on consumer, not media
A siloed way of thinking is fine if you're atop a media company or a trade association, but it falls short if managing a massive marketing budget is your bag. That lens effectively needs to be refocused not on media but on the consumer, who's cumulatively bludgeoned by commercial messages as he moves from medium to medium. "We just don't have a holistic approach yet," Mr. Barocci said.

Asked whether a more consumer-centric approach to clutter is needed, Bob Liodice, president-CEO at the Association of National Advertisers, said such an initiative "would have to be like what's going on with engagement," referring to a joint effort by his organization, the 4A's and the ARF to develop a new standard for measuring ad effectiveness. "That's something that seems to have universal support and intrigue. Ad clutter hasn't yet risen to that level. I don't want to dismiss it, though. The consumer is running away from some advertising."

Kate Sirkin, exec VP-global research director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom, said she's not counting on action from media companies, for whom clutter raises complicated questions of economics. "Media companies and associations won't look at it because they don't think in a multimedia way," she said. "It'll be up to advertisers to deal with."

The stakes are particularly high for the rapidly growing internet ad economy. Advertising has firmed up as one of the choice revenue streams for a Web 2.0 world, meaning more and more media contact points for consumers. A 2005 Yankelovich study put it this way: "New media have the potential to deliver even more saturation, clutter and intrusiveness than traditional media, in which case the new media will only worsen marketing resistance."

Swinging back to web clutter
This summer, Starcom will release major study on internet clutter finding that the more ads on a page, the more click-through rates, brand impact and product consideration decline. Jeff Marshall, senior VP-director of the firm's online arm, said since the dot-com bubble burst, many sites have cleaned themselves up. But "not everybody's moved that way. ... We may see that pendulum switch back toward clutter."

And then there's mobile marketing, where perhaps the greatest risk lies for a new avalanche of commercial content. Though hailed as one of the ad business' great growth areas, it hasn't really taken off, partly because the jury's still out on just how receptive consumers are to commercial messaging on their phones. One commenter from New York City gave this no-duh perspective: "The cellphone is way to [sic] personal to be considered another advert medium. If companies start slamming people with messages, people will be turned off."

In the end, permission marketing may be advertisers' best bet for gaining acceptance in emerging media that don't come with social contracts of the kind that's governed, say, the TV business for so long -- that is, viewers' tacit willingness to put up with ads since that revenue's underwriting the programming they enjoy.

"Anytime there's a new destination for people, like YouTube or mobile phones, the assumption is we've got to find a way to put some ads there," Mr. Barocci said. "That's just going to make things worse because there's no social contract. If mobile-phone companies say, 'We'll reduce your bill if you accept ads,' then that's a contract and that's smart."

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Abbey Klaassen contributed to this report.
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