Productivity: Pushing the Envelope

  • by March 29, 2007

In retrospect, it seems kind of silly. They were nothing but cheap electronic boxes that lit up in the shape of two cartoon characters from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Definitely not bombs.

Well, maybe I speak too soon. They were bombs alright, just not the kind that Boston city officials dreaded. They were big-time marketing bombs, and not even all that unpredictable. Sooner or later, somebody was going to cross the line.

Ads fill up our world. They've shown up on eggs, subway turnstiles, air sickness bags, TSA security trays, dogs, municipal buildings, dollar bills, doctors' exam tables, golf cups, urinals, and parking stripes. One die-hard Chicago Bears fan even offered up her nearly nine-months pregnant belly in exchange for two tickets to Super Bowl XLI. Over 200 companies inquired, but, a Chicago-based online auction company, won the rights with an offer of two 50-yard line tickets.

There are limits, though. Public outcry halted the plan to put ads on the tollbooths and approaches to New York's George Washington Bridge. After complaints from riders who couldn't see out the windows, King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, decided to do without the $700,000 in annual revenue from bus wrap ads. Fan outrage prompted Columbia TriStar and Major League Baseball to abandon a plan to put Spider-Man2 logos on bases and batting circles during the 2004 interleague games. But these are exceptions.

I used to think courtrooms, Congress, and churches would remain free from ads and marketing. But churches have capitulated. A local bank now displays an ad in the right-hand aisle of St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua, Italy. Other businesses can do so, too, if they donate money towards the upkeep of the 13th-century church.

All of this adds up to clutter. Advertising is the white noise of modern life, a background hum people routinely ignore. This is what we marketers dread - being ignored. So our response has been to turn up the volume.

This is good if it breaks through the clutter. But it's bad when it increases the marketing saturation of everyday life. Unfortunately, the former always entails the latter. Out-shouting the competition only prompts the competition to shout louder. Social scientists call this a positive feedback loop; there's no governor, so the process feeds on itself, spinning further out of control.

Consumers are fighting intrusive marketing. Interestingly, though, growing marketing resistance is paralleled by greater marketing interest. Consumers aren't resisting marketing because they dislike ads or shopping. In fact, they want more of each - as long as they're driven by consumer pull, not marketing push. But that's not how we're trained. Intrusiveness is at the core of traditional marketing thinking.

Faced with rising competitive clutter and consumer resistance, we are under increasing pressure to push the envelope. The latest breakthrough is old hat the instant it appears. Only something edgier will break through the next time. So the push is on to do something outrageously unconventional, even when it entails clutter so nefarious and intrusive that we become "marketerrorists." After all, the bigger the shock the better.

There is nothing in the marketing calculus to temper this impulse or tone down the tenor of the intrusions. It may be annoying, but if annoying sells, then tough. Marketing is about selling, nothing more. But does that mean people have no choice but to live in a relentlessly annoying world? Yes, if marketing is the only measure of the quality of our lives. Thankfully it is not.

The logic of marketing is not the logic of public interest. By definition, it is the logic of private interests. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once wrote that the only social responsibility of corporations is to generate profits. No one can fault marketing for being annoying. But people do have the right to say no, to say this far and no farther. The ground rules for the practice of marketing are not set by us; we operate within the limits allowed by the public. Intrusive, annoying clutter puts marketing at risk. It upsets people. It runs afoul of regulators. It changes the debate about marketing, even sparking a debate where none existed before.

Ultimately, setting boundaries is a policy issue, even a moral issue sometimes, not a marketing issue. But it's good for marketing, too, because whether we realize it or not, happier, less annoyed people are better viewers, better buyers, and better customers.

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