Decline of a Captive Audience

by Dominic Gettins

Without a captive audience, advertising isn’t advertising.

The centrepiece of this year’s Oxford Street Christmas lights appears to be a giant illuminated jar of Marmite. It’s fairly unmistakable what this paid-for media content is suggesting we buy.

For the avoidance of doubt, it’s Marmite.

There was little opportunity for much else here, but it is emblematic of modern advertising.

Who needs an illuminating message when you have an illuminating medium?

Or as songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz asserted at the end of a fruitless day trying to write a country song, ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’

Technology has changed advertising to the point at which it doesn’t really exist any more.

Do publishers need to be more discreet about the way they promote their books?

Where advertisers could once sit and wait for a captive nation to read their ads, they now send a logo into space and hope someone trains a search engine on it.

As in the case of call handling software, technology in advertising has turned something simple and intuitive into something complex and inscrutable.

PR agencies, Direct Marketing agencies, Media Buyers and Events Organisers are piling on the grief. Their ideas for give-aways, competitions apps and media spaces are designed for product placement, not for written content.

Dominos can put their logo on a flag in the online game of a player who will soon have to break for food. Dolce Gabbana can hunt down the woman (or man) obsessed with shoes and place their kitten-heels right where it hurts.

The diversification of media has had a liberating affect on the audience, who now can individually browse for information like bees in an infinite meadow.

I, for example, don’t open news stories that involve child deaths, or Somali pirates; I do open stories about transfer rumours and incompetent organisations.

But that’s just me.

The person next to me on the train browses Metro’s ‘Guilty pleasures’ on an iPad, prodding pictures of celebrities to find out what they’ve been up to.

We are no longer a captive audience so we are less open to foot-in-the-door persuasion, as click through rates of 0.1% for banner ads persistently underline (source: Doubleclick). But we are more open to something else.

Like the bees we are naturally attracted to what appeals to us and away from anything toxic or stressful.

Any advertiser trying to get to us in this field had better have some sweet nectar.  We will be drawn to anything that makes us laugh, smile, feel richer, happier, better informed or gives us a guilty pleasure.

Take the illuminated Marmite for example.  It’s not advertising. It’s part of the street furniture, hiding in full view, fitting in.

Writing in ‘Men’s Health’ Will Self recently said:

‘Sinister corporate interests have always understood that the best advertising is lethargic: it hangs around forever, until buying the product concerned has become as natural as breathing (or as unnatural as smoking).

Notice how McDonalds TV commercials have evolved:

  • 1970s: Smiling kids lap up the empathy of Ronald McDonald –
    a bright yellow clown.   Clearly an ad.
  • 1990s.  Comical Dads in comedy situations ending up with
    the kids at McDonalds.  Less clearly an ad.
  • 2010s:  Modern commuters, people in overalls and ordinary Mums
    with kids drop in and eat burgers, with clarinet music.  Possibly a documentary.

It’s as if eating at McDonalds were the most natural thing in the world.

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