Scholarly? Philosophical? Not hardly! Except it sometimes seems that when direct marketers aren't busy doing things, they're busy trying to define what it is they do. Our obsession with nomenclature is a sign both of insecurity and of dissatisfaction.
The insecurity lurks in the antediluvian idea that direct marketing is below the "line" and general advertising above the "line," with the attendant subtext of something darkly subterranean vs. something brightly cerulean.
THE STIGMA OF `JUNK MAIL'
It's the nature of powerful subtexts to be internalized, which is why so many direct marketers automatically wring their hands when they hear the term junk mail. In their secret heart of hearts, they fear what they're doing is indeed junk.
This is compounded by the easy entry the mail channel provides to any scoundrel who can afford paper and a postage stamp. There is indeed a lot of junk out there.
The dissatisfaction is grounded in the perception that "direct" doesn't describe very well what we do, and that "direct marketing" has never been more than an ambivalent compromise, proclaiming its direct-mail orientation at the same time it is denying it.
The end result has been a Pandora's box of terminologies. How else would you describe a situation where the terms "maximarketing" and "micromarketing" mean the same thing?
Now, as the millennium nears, along comes the word interactive. Perhaps to the rescue.
"Interactive marketers" is the newest contender for what we call ourselves. It describes pretty well what we do, and it doesn't veer toward media-specificity: Direct suggests "direct mail," irrespective of what we think it means. But no one will ever automatically associate interactive marketing with junk mail or junk calls, and the high-tech connotation doesn't hurt, either. Interactive seems to be a nice solution.
CLARIFYING THE DIFFERENCES
There's something much bigger going on here, though. Interactive marketing begins to clarify the enormous differences between direct marketing and advertising.
Unlike direct marketing, which is an industrial-age, company-focused term, interactive marketing suggests some sort of action on the part of the consumer. This is urgently important, because consumer activity vs. consumer passivity is the single most critical distinction between direct marketing and advertising.
In fact, direct marketing can't succeed if the consumer is passive, and advertising can't succeed if the consumer is active.
The true function of advertising in a post-industrial era is to promote consumption. It's to create a cultural environment where people need "things" to fill the vacuums in their lives. And the need is a classic example of addiction: Things never satisfy, which creates an automatic need for bigger, better and newer things.
As the American Association of Advertising Agencies is fond of suggesting, advertising is the engine of capitalism.
And what an engine of capitalism it is: Never before have so many people wanted so many things.
But it's advertising in the aggregate, in its growing appropriation of reality, that's effective. With rare exceptions, ads don't work well at all. There's too much overload and too much executional fuzziness for consumers to recall what brand is being promoted. Not only doesn't that matter -- it's one of the reasons advertising succeeds so well.
Advertising is propaganda. Propaganda is most effective when people are relatively unaware of being indoctrinated. The passivity of the TV viewing experience in particular, where bits and pieces of advertising creep subliminally into the minds of dreamy, inactive viewers, is the perfect environment for this.
But as soon as you ask people to take action, the dreaminess ends and the indoctrination becomes less effective. When you ask people to take action, you're not advertising, you're offering some sort of commercial information. That's the job of direct marketing. Or interactive marketing.
Madison Avenue is trying to embrace the Internet as the next great advertising medium. They have it wrong. It's the next great commercial-information medium. It's not going to supplement TV. It's going to supplement direct mail and telemarketing.
(Yes, supplement, not replace. One of the enduring myths of technology is that new technologies replace old ones. This might be true of inner workings, computer chips replacing vacuum tubes, but it's not true of applications. TV, for example, did not replace radio or movies. It supplemented them, and changed their roles.)
Far from converging, direct marketing and advertising are growing farther apart. This is in stark contrast to predictions -- made by me, among others -- that direct marketing and advertising will blend into each other. But we were wrong because we failed to understand the true functions of advertising and of direct marketing.
OPENING OUR EYES
Interactive marketing not only resolves nomenclature issues but it opens our eyes to what advertising is good for and what direct marketing is good for. It enlightens us about the true nature of mass marketing and more personalized marketing: not "either/or" but a more sophisticated "both/and."
Madison Avenue will reign for a long time. And, aided and abetted by the Internet, so will direct marketing, whatever we finally decide to call it.
Mr. Rosenfield is chairman of Rosenfield & Associates, San Diego.