Why Traditional Advertising is Kinda F**ked (and what we should do about it!)

Attention brands, business owners, advertising agencies, and media peeps!!!!

I have some bad news. And it’s not about the financial markets, the election, or your expanding waistline. Nope—it’s far, far worse.

Are you sitting down? Good. Here it comes…


That’s right. DEATH SPIRAL.

Now before you freak and jump out a window (or worse—post nasty anonymous comments in reply to this statement), allow me to explain. And yes, to propose a solution… I am a Genius, after all.

Traditional Advertising’s “Death Spiral” can be attributed to 3 recent phenomena:
1.    Clutter
2.    Trust
3.    Social media

Let’s talk.

I don’t know about you, but I hate clutter.

A little bit of nice, clean white space feels so much better.

If traditional ads were spaced like these last few paragraphs, they might actually WORK.

We might actually even ENJOY them.

But instead… most ads are more like this:

Clear as mud? ☺

The worst part is that the Clutter Problem is escalating at a DEATH-SPIRAL-INDUCING rate.

Consider this:
In 1998 Google had an index of 25M pages. As of this summer, its index had hit the mind-blowing milestone of 1 TRILLION UNIQUE URLs.


Still more to consider:

There are >100,000,000 videos on YouTube.com—with >65k new ones being added DAILY.

In 2005 (most recent data I could find), there were roughly 40 BILLION product catalogs published. That’s equal to 134 catalogs for every man, woman & child in the US.

Yes, folks, the average person is exposed to some 3000 marketing messages per day… but the American Association of Advertising Agencies says we’re only able to absorb (at most!) 100.

And let’s face it, that’s probably an inflated number.

PS. 90% of people who can skip ads, do.

Yes, but most of those messages are crap. What matters is good creative. Killer copy. Pretty women with big boobs wiggling around to a HAWT soundtrack.

Ok… NO. Neither creative nor copy nor boobs—nor any combination of the three—are likely to solve the clutter problem. Besides… you’ve got 2 more hefty problems to solve.

“Lets talk about trust baby, let’s talk about you & me…”

People don’t trust advertisers. Period.

You know it. I know it. Let’s call a spade a spade and move on. But in case you’re still skeptical (or just plain crazy), here’s proof:

“In a 1998 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards across a range of professions, advertising people ended up near the bottom, sandwiched between lawyers and car salesmen.”

SANDWICHED BETWEEN LAWYERS AND CAR SALESMEN, people!!!!! And perhaps, if we were to redo this poll today, they might change those to “Politicians and Pimps” (both of whom are better-dressed, frankly-speaking).

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the trust that most consumers have in the opinions of other consumers.

“‘Word-of-mouth’ the most powerful selling tool…78% of consumers say they trust the recommendation of other consumers.” – Nielsen, Trust in Advertising, 2007 Global Consumer Survey Report.

And the trend is particularly true among younger consumers—namely, the ¼ of the US population (ONE F**KING FOURTH!) who are 14-24yo and were born wired.

Raised in a time where “SPAM” and “COOKIE” don’t automatically conjure images of food, today’s youth LIVES and BREATHES online:

  • They spend >16 hours online/week (online > TV)
  • 56% spend >1 hour daily sending instant messages
  • ¼ prefer social networks to F2F time with friends
  • Have an average of 53 online friends (vs. 11 “close” friends)
  • 96% use a social network DAILY

And they don’t care about your ad, people. They care what their friends think.

Trust me. 😉

Social media
Ah… every traditional advertiser’s favorite topic! YAY! Let’s hug.

Seriously, now—it’s common knowledge that people don’t like intrusive, one-way conversations. What is traditional advertising but an intrusive, one-way conversation?

The paradigm is shifting. Fast. Hard.

Ahh… The Solution!

Should we make the logo bigger?

Craft a catchy new tag line?

More girls? Bigger boobs?

No, no, no, no, NO!

Traditional Advertising’s Terminal Illness (aka Death Spiral) shall not be cured by a larger helping of the Same Old Shi*t. You’re going to have think different. Act different. BE DIFFERENT.


Start by shifting your focus more on branding and less on advertising. Yes, branding. That magical je ne sais quoi that ultimately results in the feelings/thoughts/attitudes that people have about your product/service/company.

You mean our tagline?
Our logo?
The killer copy on our website?
…..Our tagline?
Are you sure?

Your brand isn’t what you say your company/product/service is. It’s what THEY say it is.

Branding isn’t advertising.

In fact, it’s more like… your child. You can’t control it (though it’s natural to want to try)… but you can [and should] certainly influence it, enable it, embrace it, and inspire it.

Start by listening. Really listening. No, REALLY listening.

There. Doesn’t that feel better already?

21 Responses

  1. I think you have a warped sense of what advertising is and what its purpose is.. Your clutter example is a comparison of apples to oranges.

    I agree with you that branding is the key, it’s just how you are getting there that is the problem. Branding requires advertising in the sense that you need to create awareness through reach and repetition, which is the purpose of advertising.

    And to be fair, your cluster / trust / social media death-spiral analogy could be easily applied to brands also.

  2. You’ve hit on a whole load of solid points here, I think I’m going to have to read that back through to properly digest it all.

  3. Branding doesn’t require advertising, it happens in spite of it. It’s one of the most pernicious lies agencies peddle to clients – ‘you need a brand ad’. Your brand is your customers experience of you and no 30 second spot can alter that – you can tell me how wonderful you are all you like but if your staff are rude, your product sucks, or your help line doesn’t then guess what I think of your ‘brand’?
    That’s the whole point of this post .
    No-one believes ‘ads’ anymore.

    Which of the following is branding:
    A Bank TVC telling you how much they care about you.
    Same bank slugging you $20 for an account overdraw (even though you’ve been with them for years).

    Absolutely advertising builds awareness but awareness is not branding.

  4. Oh, you are going to make us all go and cry. We don’t want to hear this … what do you call it? Truth.

    The problem, of course, is that most businesses have forgotten how to be different. In fact, I wonder whether you can BE different … you either are, or you aren’t. And that, as you suggest, is where branding comes in.

    Going to make for a fun time ahead.

  5. Advertising is a tool. When used properly works very effectively as compared to other ways of communicating to the masses. The industry is littered with examples of companies using their tools inappropriately. There are also examples of the correct use.

    You choose to see one specific example of ads being used to shape the consumer’s perception (branding) and make the blanket statement that all ads are not trusted.

    Advertising does work. Branding campaigns can use ads effectively if you know now to do it. Often a company’s strategy of growth (market share), new products, line extensions, and sub brands will depend on you getting your message to as many people as possible before your competitors can react to your plans. Your example of branding can’t do that alone.

    Ironically, your prejudice and bias against advertising has you making statements that destroys the trust of your readers who know that advertising does work very well. In essence, your false or exaggerated claims of all advertising failing could make some wonder if your thoughts on branding should be listened to.

  6. Thanks for the feedback. I had a feeling this post might touch a nerve ;).

    @Tim Rueb, I don’t think my sense of advertising is at all warped. I think that the industry on the whole is struggling to make the leap from “the way we’ve always done things” (ie broadcasting messages—brand-focused, product-focused, feature-focused, promotion-focused, or otherwise) to The Social Way (ie engaging in a conversation & viewing consumers as peers rather than TARGETS). Throwing product placement and slick digital campaigns into the mix doesn’t mean advertising gets it anymore than putting lipstick on a pig makes her a beauty queen.

    Raising awareness is not something only to be achieved through advertising. In fact… the most powerful awareness campaigns happen without traditional advertising.

    Seems to me the reason why you’re here reading this blog might just be to learn more about exactly that. 😉

  7. If you think about it, a lot of jobs are becoming quite obsolete. Brokers, and real estate folks are figuring that out, at least for the short term, right quick. As far as advertising goes, I am no exception. I mean who needs a copywriter? AD’s bitch about too much copy, let alone consumers. When was the last time anyone read a long copy ad and said, “Yah, I am glad I read that. Now, point me in the direction of that fine product.”

    My job has been gone for a long time. With that in mind I have attempted to make of list of my apocalypse employment qualifications. In that I am mean jobs that really matter. Building, cooking, hunting, etc … Come to find out, I have none. So if the world were to crumble back into a darkened “need only” society, I would likely be fitted with a scarecrow head and perched in a field. At least I could eat between shifts.

  8. It’s weird but I just write this comment on Paul Dunay’s blog then read your rant:
    “Here’s a scenario I see coming: Marketing only consists of users championing a product or service and brand owners only supporting and providing information to those champions.
    No more advertising. No more brand development and broadcasting. No more research or focus groups. Everything will be out there in the social layer for potential buyers to find and parse for themselves.
    An entirely new marketing paradigm- or perhaps the oldest: “What’s the word in the marketplace about X?” ”

    A couple of things: I’ve heard that we’re up to 8500 marketing messages a day (like a few thousand more make any difference!).
    We collect results in social media for our monitoring and analysis tool. In six months we’ve acquired over 700 million results with up to 30 pieces of meta-data for each (demographics, authority, etc.) and are adding 10 million + daily. Any marketer who thinks you can ignore that huge network of conversations has their head in the sand.
    The world changed and ad agencies don’t get it (some do but they’re swimming upstream).

  9. great stuff! – I love how you bind everything up on facts =)

    This is what keeps me moving , that we’re changing stuff together. No more business as usual

  10. Really great post While I agree there is a definite shift in advertising and branding, I don’t see online as the death of all traditional.

    Google (yes evil Google) has a ton of studies on the impact of online to traditional media. What it finds is that most people are driven online to find a product (or learn about a brand). Traditional drives new media.
    The key is not abandoning traditional to solely focus on WOM, interactive or social networks, its figuring out how to make them work in conjunction with each other.

  11. I don’t know here. I work in “social media”, and am THE INTERNET ambassador at our agency. And I knew what new-media was before the term was hijacked.

    And I think you’re seriously drinking some poisoned cool aid.

    It’s also very self serving, considering your occupation, to be claiming such myths.

    Social media is a crock. Twitter is not killing newspapers. MySpace did not kill TV.

    You’re dangerously close to being a target on my New Media Experts to Avoid list. http://www.saladr.com/8-internet-marketing-experts-to-avoid/

    Don’t make me do it. Please. Tone down the hype. I’ve got teeth.

  12. Another good one – perhaps a tad incendiary. For a case study in what you are talking about above, take a look at how BSSP executed “marketing” for MINI.

    Explicit decision to deeply understand, engage and actually communicate with the existing MINI community INSTEAD of trying to target non-MINI owners.


    Results? MINI owners came to love MINI even more and recommended them to their friends. This resulted in MORE cars being sold.

    Great example of post mass media marketing execution.

    Tom O’Brien

  13. And keep in mind, Marta. It’s not your passion or your theories I disagree with, it’s the incessant Web 2.0 hype-machine running astray that curdles the blood.

  14. I think Advertising 1.0 is part of the same death spiral as Business 1.0. All those assholes in business that are out for themselves are getting their Karmic returns in this economic shakedown. And the Business 1.0 people that are trying to understand the Business 2.0 model will have a tough time. Their extant perspective is too limited to be able to make sense of the involved concepts.

  15. Followed your tweet over pointing to Martin’s comments. He’s right on and I’ll build on that. Think about where social networks are going. You can only communicate to people from whom you have express permission. If I don’t want to hear from you, I block you out/de-friend you/un-follow, whatever. Email will exist, but more and more it will be trusted networks that refer messages in.

    Take a look at how Dan Pink and I (disclosure: my client) are turning book marketing on its head using this exact concept. The consumers are doing the marketing for us…for free.


  16. Traditional Advertising Trumps Internet Advertising…

    I came across a blog today at Implied by Design that touts Internet advertising over traditional advertising. I must say, though, that I was not impressed by the majority of the arguments. Let me give you a little flava: First……

  17. So people don’t trust advertisers. We all knew that one. And if they don’t, then why don’t advertisers do something about it to make themselves more trustworthy? How about actually telling the truth? Only making brand promises that you know you can follow through on? But even with all the lies consumers do rely on ads influence their decisions. Maybe not as much as they used to before Web 2.0, but they still do. I wouldn’t know what my choices were in hybrid cars if I didn’t see the TV ads for them. That doesn’t mean that I will go out and buy whichever hybrid TV ad is the best, but I do use them to get info about a product before going to the Web to do more research. I don’t think traditional advertising is in a death spiral, I think it just has to share the spotlight now.

  18. […] Traditional Advertising and Media are enduring either a long slow death or an increasingly short, quick one.  They have been for awhile.  If you don’t already know this, you are stuck in the 20th century and haven’t been introduced to TiVo, PayPal, or facebook. Either way, traditional advertising is going the way of the dodo bird.  Whatever takes its place will be…different. […]

  19. […] the past, I’ve been more than a little outspoken about the potential impact of social media as a marketing and brand-building tool. And I’ve […]

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