A lot has been said in recent years about the rise of the consumer's role in the creation and use of media. Bloggers are regularly credited with either breaking a story first or developing a story first introduced somewhere else. MySpace has become the home of millions of people who have chosen it for their particular brand of self-expression.
YouTube serves a similar purpose for the aspiring videographer, as well as a destination for fans and critics. The personal digital video recorder has given individuals control over when they consume TV. It seems that everywhere you turn, people are using media in ways that marketers and advertisers never dreamed of.
This changing landscape has led to three different responses. The first is complete denial that the decentralization of media consumption is anything meaningful. Secondly, you sense a nervous panic among marketers, leading them to grasp at whatever the next new thing is. And, thirdly, the proclamation, uttered with evangelical exuberance, that media and advertising as we know it is dying.
Woven into the reaction - and the general zeitgeist of a consumer-centric universe - is the notion that marketers, advertisers and agencies ought to cast the consumer as the author, director and star of each message and brand engagement.
But is doing so such a great idea after all? Does focusing too much on what the consumer will choose end up overemphasizing the rational, or decision-making, elements of an audience's behavior? Advertising's central objective is to convince strangers that purchasing a product or service will somehow improve their lives. In other words, advertising has always been about playing to people's emotions. Turning over marketing to the audience forces them to think about ads - but what people think doesn't always determine what they feel (or what they do).
The greatest product successes have always been those that have emotional or even instinctual appeal; if the messaging that represents those products to its audiences has the same structure, even better. That's why television as an advertising medium has been so powerful. The brightly lit, moving, sound-bearing images have a physical and subconscious impact on our brains. The format can represent complex narratives in simple, emotionally appealing formats, reaching into the non-rational aspects of our selves. People will tell you that they drink Coke or Pepsi because they like the flavor of one over the other. Blind tests have proven time and again that preference for one over the other is about 50/50. Yet Coke's domestic market share is 43 percent and Pepsi's is 31 percent.
In 2003, Read Montague, the director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab and director of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Baylor University, conducted his own taste tests, monitoring volunteers with an MRI machine to observe their neural activity. Half of the participants in a blind test said they preferred Pepsi. But after participants were told the samples were Coke, 75 percent said they preferred the taste of Coke. The MRI revealed that neural activity changed once the subject was aware of which sample was which. When tasting Coke, once the brand was known, the medial prefrontal cortex - a part of the brain that controls high-level cognitive powers - lit up like a Christmas tree. Subjects were recalling images and other associations from Coke's marketing and advertising.
Giving audiences some amount of control over the media landscape they live in is a fine thing. But too much focus on choice results in too much reliance on "thinking" and "remembering," something people don't do too well. Subject advertising to rationality and decision-making and advertisers will find they'll be greatly disappointed.
At best, we should hope for a relationship of managed hostility on the part of an audience to advertising.
Audiences may appreciate advertising as an artifact of culture or as a vehicle for delivery of information (this is why search is so successful). But let's face it: Most people don't give a dead rat's ass about being engaged, spoken to, or listened to by a brand.
They want their content; they want product. Where these intersect will always be a point of contest, not one of happy facility. As advertisers and their agents, we have to slip in under the radar of reason and choice and get the audience to "feel" its way into action.