It’s the next thing out of most people’s mouths the moment I tell them I work in marketing. They hate ads, there are too many of them, and who’s got time to watch television these days anyway?
One of the great media myths is that television is dead. It’s not—the numbers around audience reach show that—but the idea persists. What has changed markedly is how we engage. I saw some research last year that claims only 35% of the average paid TV break is actively watched. For the rest of the time, around one-fifth of viewers channel surf, roughly the same number look at other devices while the ads are on, others distract themselves with other things or fast forward through the commercial breaks. A small number – three percent – even take the opportunity to interact with other people.
Yet ads still make their way into conversation, either because we like them or not. And of course they are a mainstay of events like Superbowl. Even Vogue gets in on the act.
So why do we say we hate so much advertising, and yet there are clearly ads that inspire us? Is it just a quality thing, or is there more to it than that? Partially I believe social media and the ready availability of news, views and entertainment has shifted how we categorize what we are seeing. Increasingly we mercilessly sift the streams of all the content that presents itself to us into two categories: noise; and signal.
Noise is the stuff that clutters up our day, that interrupts and annoys and where we see little worth. I’m not surprised that only one-third of most ad breaks get watched, because the majority of the advertising seems to fall into this category. It’s loud, imposing, uninteresting selling. It has many of us reaching for the mute button within seconds, or hitting Skip Ad as soon as we can on the videos we watch online. When people tell me that advertising doesn’t work and that they don’t watch them, this is what I think they’re referring to: the 65% of content that we opt to dismiss.
Signal is different. It’s the stuff, from a range of sources, that we choose to form an opinion over. It does more than inform us. It entertains or provokes us. It makes us proud or angry. As we check our screens for things to take our eye—up to 150 times a day according to author Nir Eyal—increasingly it’s this content that forms our talking points on a daily basis.
Much is made these days of our shortened attention spans, and that our ability to concentrate is now 0.5 seconds shorter than that of a pet goldfish. That, some commentators rush to explain, is why marketing increasingly doesn’t work. It’s an attention-seeking headline in its own right but a dubious correlation because, as Andrew Porterfield has pointed out, there is no agreed definition on what it means to “pay attention” and it underplays our natural abilities to adapt to the changing speed of life.
Signals explain how we can choose to love two babies bouncing on a Powerfit machine, Jean-Claude Van Damme straddling a Volvo truck, the latest Air New Zealand safety video, TED talks, box sets of our favorite TV series and so much more. It’s not about what form it takes, or even what the subject is. It’s about what’s interesting to us in the moment and what we perceive others will be interested in.
Signals are what people share, because they’re made up of items that are conversation drivers, because we agree with them or not, because they’re trending, because they amuse us or they bring us together in some way. And the format of that content is becoming less and less important. It may be an ad. It may be an interview. It may be gossip. How and why it was created is less important than whether or not, to borrow a concept from social media itself, it’s ‘pinnable’—something that we want to attach ourselves to—through sharing, commenting or liking.
Jonah Berger, in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, argues that we are drawn to what affects us and to ideas that we remember and that we believe others will be interested in. He suggests six factors:
Social Currency – we’re fascinated by things that are remarkable, literally, in the sense of worthy of being remarked on. Commentary drives contagion, but to attract commentary a signal must be more fascinating than other things around it. In other words, signals are competitive. They are only as interesting as their ability to rise above the surrounding noise.
Triggers – this one will be no surprise at all to marketers. We like things that we can remember easily and where the associations are well known, because they act as shortcuts (acronyms) for life. You say “Kit Kat”. Everyone around you gets “have a break”. But the flip side to this is that different demographics can also instill different meanings into words (even brands) that are well known. Check the Urban Dictionary for some amusing examples of this.
Emotion – similar to social currency, in that we’re drawn to things that affect us. Berger suggests asking the three Whys to understand why something will move us deeply. Again, there’s a strong tribal element to this as well. The emotions that a group share around an idea—for or against—can be a powerful cohesive factor.
Public – these are the ideas that are easily replicable and that gain strength as they are adopted. Think of the Ice Bucket Challenge. They work because they enable people to share in an activity and at the same time provide their own interpretation.
Practical Value – this, says Berger, is the news that makes living easier. It’s why YouTube is so popular – simple, visual, practical.
Stories – again, no surprise to marketers. The power of shareable narrative is now well established. Increasingly brands are looking to stories rather than just “spots” to weave a longer , more intricate view of why they matter and the value they add.
We all look at Berger’s list, and, four years on, I don’t think there are any surprises here. And yet turn on the television and in your average commercial break, it’s getting harder and harder to find advertising that has any of these qualities. There’s very little that is remarkable. The ad campaigns that build on great ideas seem consigned to the awards showreels because very few of them seem to make their way into ad breaks on a regular basis. There are very few good stories. It feels to me that brand owners have failed to see that they are competing in a new context, and that media presence is, by default, noise—unless a brand makes specific effort to make it more than that.
It’s tempting to believe that the products you promote and are responsible for, the ones that occupy your day and that are integral to your career advancement, are interesting. That’s a false assumption in my view. I believe marketers have to assume that their brands are inherently unexciting to consumers—and brief their agencies on that basis. The onus is on the marketing team to make their brands fascinating, associative, moving, contagious, problem-solving … And the way to do that is to reverse the question that seems to dominate so much of the thinking.
The question is not: “What can we get for $X?”, which really translates to: how interesting can we be on our budget?
Because reach too is noise.
The real question is: “How will we send a true signal, and what is that signal worth to our brand’s immediate and longer term value?” But that question is only valuable in itself if the metrics that define success are commercially real. Sadly, too many ad metrics are commercially meaningless in terms of seriously evaluating a brand’s progress from noise to signal. They don’t explain how a brand’s advertising has presented an idea that is so compelling that it is competitive against all the other ideas that are hitting people’s devices through their various feeds.
A brand can be meaningful today. It can represent ideas that are powerful and inspiring. But it can only do that if it has a mandate to send true signals.
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