Column: The Consumer - Does Size Matter?

  • by July 29, 2005
By Paul Parton

Mall media properties with targeted content are widely regarded as the most engaging, at least from a consumer standpoint. But William McPhee, a researcher and an unsung hero of media and marketing, disagrees. And McPhee bases his research on one simple observation: popular radio programs also tend to be the ones listened to most often and for the longest amount of time.

The results of his studies were published in 1963 and seemed counterintuitive at the time (and in many ways, still do). One would imagine, for example, that many people might not listen to a radio program focused on the art of wood carving, but the active wood-carvers who did listen to it would enjoy it immensely. But, according to McPhee, that isn't the case.

In fact, the shows that people enjoy most are the ones that most people enjoy. Think about "Desperate Housewives" or "American Idol," for example. These shows are loved by an enormous number of people and the people who love them, love them a lot; they become must-see tv, and appointment viewing (which, of course, is the Holy Grail for anyone involved in tv programming). Conversely, a show like "What Not To Wear" on tlc isn't watched by nearly as many people and isn't loved as much  even by the people who do watch it. The show becomes something viewers can safely miss and pick up again.

This is a point of view that's well supported by the social sciences that say, when you boil it all down, that we are herd animals. We like to conform, and conforming is a popular thing to do. We're simply not objective enough to make decisions based on what we think alone. We factor what other people think into all of our decision-making processes. Opinion polls influence us, the Billboard charts influence us, and we're even influenced by canned laughter on comedy shows (sad, but true). We like to get on the bandwagon.

We base our water-cooler conversation on blockbuster movies, not art-house flicks. We like Big Macs more than caviar. The ads that are talked about most every year are the ads that air during the Super Bowl. We like shared experiences. We like things that other people like, and activities that other people are doing at the same time that we're doing them.

Which brings up an interesting question given the current media environment. Are we enjoying media less, now that there are fewer people enjoying the same thing at the same time? If that is the case, then how do we go about engaging consumers when we know they engage most deeply with things that lots of other people can share at the same time? To the first point, McPhee would probably say that we are enjoying media less now that the audiences have become smaller. But he'd also remind us that the big shared experiences haven't gone away altogether.

Clearly, some of the traditional mass audiences still exist, for programs like the Super Bowl and "American Idol." And, if we can be part of those shared experiences, we are likely to communicate with an engaged audience.

But beyond these traditional mass experiences, new shared experiences are being created. Just think about the buzz that surrounded the release of the sci-fi-themed video game "Halo," for example. It was a huge shared experience that engaged millions of consumers in a new media form.

But in the absence of large audiences and shared experiences, McPhee would probably suggest that if you can't find an audience, make an audience. That opportunity exists now for the first time ever.

Anyone can create a new shared experience, just as Andy Milonakis did when he sat in front of his Webcam and started rapping under the name of Chonky. Now it seems that the whole of America has seen his Web films and, given that he's signed a 10-show contract with mtv, he's only going to get bigger.

Times have changed and we need to change with them. We can't rely on media alone to deliver an engaged audience any more. Content needs to start doing some of the work that media used to be able to do by itself. Advertising needs to go beyond selling to create shared experiences. It needs to be transferable, portable, and it needs to attract an audience.

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

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