The Consumer: Become the Entertainment

  • by May 25, 2006

Maybe it's just me, but lately the New York City subways seem overrun with Peruvian panpipe players. Now, it could be that the stations I use just happen to attract performers of that particular genre. Still, almost without exception, when I'm walking to or from the 6 train, I'm greeted by the gentle harmonies of Abba in woodwind. There's obviously money in it. Some of the performers have full electric bands. Many of them sell professionally recorded CDs, even tempting passersby with dancers who showcase the goods. So people must like it. Which, I suppose, shouldn't be too surprising, for the simple reason that subway travel is monotonous, and we all welcome any escape from monotony.

There's nothing new in that. We've long sought relief from the extended tedium of commuting by paying street performers who make us smile or by tuning into drive-time radio. But what's new, at least for the large segment of the population who don't enjoy reading, is the constant accessibility of multimedia entertainment, which means that it can help abate boredom in new places  work, for example.

The widespread adoption of broadband, Wi-Fi, portable DVD players, and Internet-enabled cell phones, along with strong sales of the PSP Portable, the iPod, and now the video iPod, are creating a world in which boredom is redundant. The average white-collar worker, for example, now spends almost two hours a day goofing off on the Internet  not doing research on new market segments or analyzing competitive positions, just plain old goofing off, like accessing the latest postings on YouTube or reading the Huffington Post. It's all leading us to consume more media than ever before.

Marketers, of course, are watching us consume all of these new media and are eager to latch on. That's not as easy to do as it might first appear. In the old days it was accepted that entertainment provided a vehicle for commercial messages. It was a fair contract: You make me laugh and I'll watch your ads.

But as we've heard ad nauseam over the last couple of years, consumers haven't renewed that contract. On the contrary, they are actively dismissing marketers who intrude on their entertainment, and the owners of these new platforms, who rely on the patronage of their viewers, are recognizing it. The owners of, for example, are calling for the introduction of 5-second commercials, because anything else is perceived as too long and too intrusive.

Marketers have tried any number of ways to get around these pesky empowered consumers by embedding their messages and products surreptitiously in the entertainment. But that approach remains intrusive  perhaps even more so  which means that people are just as inclined to switch it off.

Ultimately, the only way to get past the consumer's defenses is to stop trying to. Stop intruding on the entertainment and become the entertainment. In some ways, that's never been easier. All you need is a digital camera and a copy of iMovie to make a short film these days. Simple midi studios and cheap keyboards can create professional-sounding songs. And distributing these pieces is even easier than making them, as millions of aspiring poets across the county are realizing. You only have to read some of the 5.1 million of them on to realize how low the barriers to being published are these days.

To stand out in this new media environment requires an attitude. It also requires a healthy disrespect for convention and a willingness to flout the rules. All of which is making it difficult for many traditional marketers to play. To become the entertainment rather than intrude on it means that corporations have to let down their guard. They need to seed ideas and see which ones flourish. They have to embrace the thought that people will like their ideas so much they want to create their own versions of them  like they've done with ads for Nike, Apple, and Burger King.

Ultimately, marketers have to be comfortable enough with their own brands to have fun with them. When they are, they, along with the panpipe players in Union Square station, will see that we all embrace anyone who can make us smile when we wouldn't otherwise.


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