Column: The Consumer

  • by September 23, 2005
In preparation for this forecast issue of media, the editors asked me to ponder the question "If advertising is dead, what comes next?" Which made me think of atoms. Atoms, of course, are the ubiquitous little devils that constitute everything we are and everything we see. We are made entirely of atoms, as are the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the cars we drive, and the houses we sleep in. They're everywhere.

But what's interesting about atoms is that they last a lot longer than the things they form. When I shuffle off this mortal coil, I will cease to exist, but the atoms that made me will form new things. (Maybe a beautiful flower or a cozy jacket for the winter -- I'd like to think my atoms would be useful and aesthetically pleasing.) Also, inevitably, a few of my atoms will form themselves into new people. It's estimated, for example, that all of us have a billion or so atoms of Leonardo da Vinci within us. So on those days when you wake up feeling particularly perky and smart, you could attribute it to the atomic influence of the artist responsible for the "Mona Lisa."

Our atoms live on, long after we're gone. So there is life after death. Although, as the great Dr. McCoy from "Star Trek" remarked, "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it." Which is a fair analogue to the current state of advertising: It will live on, but not as we know it.

Like the atom, advertising is fairly resilient. (There were, after all, commercial messages and political slogans found in the ruins of Pompeii.) But the late-20th- century form of advertising has unquestionably breathed its last. The one-dimensional campaign anchored by 30-second tv spots scheduled to achieve 3+ frequency is over. However, the atoms that made up 20th-century advertising will undoubtedly reconstitute and form something new.

We can state this with some certainty because we know that people need advertising in one form or another. Advertising helps us deal with choice. It provides us with a way to think about a product, to classify it, and categorize it, which ultimately helps us decide whether or not we want to associate ourselves with that product. At a time when choice has become abundant to the point of excess, a little help in choosing between alternatives is increasingly important.

Now, it could be argued that the Internet has replaced advertising as a resource to aid choice. But can you imagine searching out product reviews every time you wanted to buy something? It's an overwhelming prospect. There's just too much data out there. And who needs facts, anyway? Although we don't always like to admit it, we're much more emotional than rational when it comes to making decisions. Generally, the thinking part of our brain simply post-rationalizes decisions that the emotional part of our brain has already arrived at.

Feeling comes first. And it is our feelings toward a product that help us decide whether we want to associate ourselves with it. And in large measure, it is the advertising for that product that creates our feelings.

So if advertising will live on, how will it change? Simply put, advertising will focus more on creating good feelings than it will on communicating facts. And to that end, we can look forward to a creative renaissance in the industry, where the ideas and concepts that create good feelings are valued over formulae for communicating facts.

We can expect creative work to be judged more on its ability to entertain than its ability to persuade. And media plans will be judged more on their ability to engage the consumer, rather than bully the consumer into submission. Advertising will become more visceral, more experiential. Design will become increasingly important for the advertising agency. And we will all be painting on a much broader canvas.

And to achieve all of our goals, we're going to have to turn our backs on the optimization software and the copy-testing systems that were designed to help us communicate facts. Instead, in order to create effective advertising in this new environment, we'll need to lean heavily on the most sophisticated system of all -- our own intuition and humanity. Advertising is dead. Long live advertising.

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

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