Column: The consumer - Think Evolution, Not Revolution

  • by June 22, 2005

It seems like you can't open a trade magazine these days without pronouncements about the media revolution. But while media may be changing at lightning speed, it's likely that consumers' media habits will evolve more gradually. Maybe it's just me, but everywhere I look these days there seems to be a story about chaos theory and media's new world order. I'm referring specifically to a story that ran in Advertising Age in April, discussing a hurly-burly wonderland of new media opportunity where everything is on-demand, personalized, and absolutely advertising-free.

But I can't help wondering whether this chaotic, new-world, revolutionary-media-order thing is being driven more by the technocrats who are creating the new media than it is by the consumers who are meant to engage with it.

Take TiVo, for example. My emotional, excitable side wanted the TiVo introduction to be dramatic - to signal change. But it really didn't. We've been hearing about the time-shift revolution in programming for nigh on six years now, and there are only 2.3 million TiVo boxes out there. My logical side keeps telling me that's not a lot. I guess the number becomes more impressive when you add in non-branded digital video recorders, but 5 percent of the population is still pretty low.

I began to get excited again when I read about the behavioral shift that tivo viewing precipitated. A full 70 percent of users are skipping ads. But then it stands to reason that the early adopters of a technology that allows you to skip ads will be the people who most want to skip ads.

At the same time, 44 million people watched the ad-laden premiere of the TV show "Grey's Anatomy." That's the population of Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, Costa Rica, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic combined. Which would suggest that people's media habits are going to evolve more gradually than some pundits would like them to, just as habits always have.

TV didn't kill radio (it's going from strength to strength, isn't it?). And we're still reading newspapers despite all the predictions in 1995 that legions of commuters would be unfurling wafer-thin computer tablets on the train and downloading the day's news. People don't usually change too quickly. And barring repeated contravention of their basic human rights, they tend not to rush toward revolution. Evolution is much more natural.

My layman's understanding of the evolutionary process is that it is a search for balance between maintaining a comfortable status quo, and responding to an environmental or cultural need for change.

Take the giraffe.

A long time ago, it had a short neck. And it would have been quite happy plodding around munching the occasional leaf if it weren't for the fact that long-necked giraffes attracted the ladies. (The long necks helped them reach higher leaves, which aided their prospects of survival, which is quite attractive in a giraffe.)

So, the evolutionary principle kicked in and long-necked giraffes begot longer-necked giraffes. But the necks could only get so long. There would come a point at which they wouldn't be able to lift their heads to eat or run fast from predators. And so, balance was reached. Necks that were attractively long, but functional, won out.

There's no question that changes are afoot in the media world and many of them are long overdue. But it's going to be a while before we see what kind of balance is struck between a ponderous status quo and a revolutionary change. Of course, the balance won't be struck by the media industry, but by the consumers it serves. It will make for some interesting gambling over the next few years on which revolutionary new media will survive the evolutionary principle.

For the record, my money's on the PlayStation portable.

Paul Parton is the brand planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (

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