Television has been with us for more than 50 years and enjoyed near complete dominance as the preferred medium for advertising. TV network people don’t like to admit it, but the whole concept of TV advertising has been based on coercion, in terms of forcing people to endure irrelevant ads in exchange for free television programming.
Over the past several decades, this basic quid pro quo has been pushed to the limit by the network owners (who really aren’t owners at all: they operate their financial empires on licenses of the public airwaves). First subscription-based cable TV networks began running ads, a form of double-dipping that resulted in viewers paying twice, first in the currency of money to the cable company, and again in the currency of attention, as advertisers crowded into this new medium. Later, traditional “free” broadcast TV began to suffer from so much advertising clutter that today, networks such as ABC run an unprecedented 15 minutes of ads in every hour of programming.
Consumers have always sought relief from irrelevant, incessant TV ads foisted upon them by advertisers, using every technological device that’s come down the pike, from the remote control to Tivo to YouTube. In response, networks and ad agencies attempted to reassert their power of coercion, going so far as to develop devices that defeat fast-forwarding or channel-switching while a commercial is on.
This nasty conflict could have gone on forever, had it not been for the mainstream adaptation of the World Wide Web and the development of a completely new marketing paradigm powered by search engines. This new way of thinking substitutes relevance and consent for irrelevance and coercion, and it’s one of the main reasons why search marketing has been an unparalleled success.
Still, the powerful institutions formed by television’s dominant years, the broadcast networks and ad agencies, continue to dance together as if nothing has changed. At this May’s Upfront in New York, much lip service will be paid by TV network people and agencies to “multichannel media buys,” “accountability,” and “robust online digital opportunities.”
But make no mistake: the people who will be mouthing these newfangled terms were brought up, trained and conditioned to think of advertising in the old, coercion-based way. They’re used to thinking of viewers in masses to which advertising is “pushed,” instead of individuals with unique information needs that need to be served in a customized way. Instead, they tout gaudy (banner), irrelevant (CPM-based), and intrusive (pop-up, pop-under, interstitial) forms of marketing which users plainly detest. None seem to appreciate that the Internet is a radically new medium that thoroughly defies the efforts of anyone, from giant corporations to governments, to control user behavior.
In effect, the Internet is a medium self-equipped with a remote control, a “mute” button, a “close” button, play/pause/rewind controls, and an A.C. Nielsen People Meter. If these technologies had been available during the heyday of television advertising, only a handful of commercials would have ever been watched in their entirety.
If TV had a “close” button from its advent, it would not exist today in its present form, and we’d all still be huddled around our radios. The industry would never have spawned the giant institutions we see today (huge ad agency holding companies, sprawling networks, and highly capitalized production companies). It’s hard to picture what such a media environment would have looked like, but one thing is clear: no amount of wishing, hand-wringing, or badmouthing among media barons will restore the lost world in which advertisers and networks ruled the way we consumed media. Nor will any efforts to rebuild a coercion-based advertising economy succeed in the digital era. Advertising must be relevant, consensual, and instrumental to solving the problems of the individual, and Search Marketing, while not a perfect manifestation of this ideal, is the form of marketing that most closely approaches such an ideal today.