Professional Advertising Is Dead. Long Live Advertising.

About eight years ago,  I started to notice a bizarre phenomenon.  I was paid by people to make things look “professional,” yet I repeatedly noticed that consumers were suspicious or oblivious to much of the visual language that was established by the past century of professional ad design.  I looked around for some theorist to back me up on this trend, but I couldn’t.  I kept it to myself for fear of my customers thinking me heretical.

During the early to mid 2000’s, I had a gut instinct that my website would perform better if I kept it extremely simple and text-based, even though I was selling web design and marketing.

I was right.  Customers appreciated the direct message and the idea that I was accessible and — well —  imperfect.  The lack of gloss and glimmer made my often techno-phobic potential customers feel like they could trust me, or perhaps they could get a good deal.

Banner blindess is a real phenomenon that I’ve thought a lot about.  It is the culmination of widespread selective perception patterns where  we learn where ads are going to be placed on a layout, or how they differ visually from the regular content, and “tune them out.”

This is no surprise.  Human perception has evolved to distinguish the most minute differences in things, and as we log more hours online, the more we recognize subtle patterns of where an element came from.

The reaction to these analytic user trends is online advertising that has evolved into a hodge-podge of fake news articles, personal phone-self pics and anything that will fool us into thinking that somehow it isn’t mass advertising– that it’s a real person or group that is on the other side of that hyperlink.

The fundamental lesson goes way back to one of the truisms of the usability theory of Jacob Neilsen: we  hate it when we don’t have control over our interactive experience.  We’re engaged in an immersive experience where we are choosing the next step.  When we are forced to wait or lose control, we panic.  When we have to watch an ad that we didn’t choose, or see a slideshow that we can’t control, or sit through content we didn’t expect, it bothers us.

Even video streams have evolved to allow users to jump over a section by touching the timeline, we no longer have a tolerance for passive consumption in any form.

I think anyone who is online can relate to that, but it’s a problem that outlines a deeper shift in advertising that hasn’t been addressed enough in design or marketing theory.   How can advertisers make push marketing work again?

Well, banners are always going to be with us.  We’ve always been able to ignore billboards and newspaper ads, but perhaps this uncovers something that we missed along the way: that the deep cues of from whence something originates has more to do with it’s efficacy than it used to.

In other words, we are constantly engaged in a deeper and deeper test of authenticity.

What does that mean?  It means that when we get the feeling that we’re seeing a rehash of the same perfect commercial or magazine ad we’ve seen before, that once may have made our eyes water ten years ago, we now glaze over and get impatient.

This goes against everything that customers of advertising want: predictable outcomes that have worked for others using the established symbols of the industry.

So how do you explain that this doesn’t work anymore to a boardroom that is terrified of risk in this economy?  Chances are, you don’t.  You give them safe mediocrity and cash their checks.

Are the glossy feel-good production of pharmaceutical commercials and Madison Avenue magazine ads dead to us now?    The decision by many companies to shift their budgets away from TV ad time to more diverse interactive social marketing is testament that companies are reacting to this trend, even if they don’t understand why it is happneing.

We are highly suspicious of big anonymous corporations and the predictable symbols of comfort, safety and happiness they have bombarded us with since birth.  We know that guy in the photo is a model, or the woman in the commercial is an actor who probably never used the product.  We’re more cynical than ever — especially the younger generations.

The 20 somethings today are so engaged on a meta-level game of irony that many of the “hipsters” don’t know why something is ironic or from whence it originated.  They just have a gut feeling that authenticity is impossible, so they embrace the absurdity of postmodernism and pastiche.

Social media, the flattening of the planet and the growing ease in which your average person can create great content has transformed our expectations.  We crave authenticity or gut-busting humor.  We want something real.

Perhaps it is even to the point that interactive has conditioned people to be deaf or blind to what they sense is advertising.  Perhaps we learned to like commercials because we didn’t have a choice — we have to watch them so we might as well enjoy them in the greater context of this pleasant TV watching experience.  That’s probably why commercials have increasingly blurred into entertainment.

“Aha,” you may say — now you admit that social media is the wave of the future despite your previous denial!

No, that’s not what I mean at all.  For social media to transcend the efficacy and ROI of traditional advertising, it requires some serious work by seriously creative and witty marketers.  Authenticity is easy, but it’s incredibly difficult to manicure into something compelling.  Shifting your marketing to a social media team is a real leap of faith.  They better know what they’re doing and it better be appropriate for your business. If you are a company with a limited budget, it still makes more sense to buy signs.

We want you to be yourself, but if you’re not interesting, then we’d prefer someone else to be authentic on your behalf.

If something is good, it’s good.  The iPhone commercials are an example.  They showed us a product that blew our minds, but now we’ve seen it.  Been there, done that.

What seems to turn us off more than anything is when we sense that something is trying to be something it is not.  It is a nasty American habit: the desire to look richer than you really are, to buy a house and a car you can’t afford. Where this happens in marketing the most is on the small to medium business level, where a local business charades in the visual language of an anonymous multinational corporation,  but there are subtle cues that we pick up on that tell us that, “these guys are probably in a low-rent suite somewhere.”

Those cues are things humanist fonts, stock photos of beautiful models in big skyscrapers and words like “quality customer service.”   All these things aspiring business leaders salivate over, and aspiring designers deliver.

What would be much better instead is a good portrait of the proprietors, their story and testimonials and photos of real customers.

It’s a long way since we fast forwarded through commercials on the VHS tape.  We’ve discovered the “skip button” on our DVRs and on our websites and perhaps we’ve reached a point where we’ve truly internalized the skip button in our minds.  We feel that if we can’t skip over this section, it means that we must not have the right technology yet, or we’re operating on a sub-par channel.

We’ve carried our expectations of interactive control over to all parts of our lives.