Advertising Technology

What the Catchy Lyrics of “Closing Time” (and Axl Rose) Teach Us About the Perception of Digital Advertising

Baskin_Headshot “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before.” ― Haruki Murakami1Q84

When I was a freshman in college in 1989, my first road trip was a short one. Longing to reconnect with a piece of home without actually going back, I drove an hour South to Rowan University to visit two friends from high school. Walking through the dorm with one friend, I came upon an open door and excitedly heard Guns N Roses playing. Inside, a girl at her desk sat, writing furiously away as she listened to “I Used To Love Her” from GNR Lies.

“Great song. I love Guns N Roses.” I enthusiastically declared after I had introduced myself.

“Ugh. I’m writing this paper on misogynistic lyrics in Rock.  Axl is a $#@%” she gruffed condescendingly.

Chances of a connection: blown up like the Hindenburgh. Not comprehending at the time what she meant by a ‘Massage Sadistic,’ I kept that to myself. I did however attempt to enlighten her to the real meaning of the song. “But it’s just about Axl having to put his dog to sleep and bury her in his back yard.  It’s actually quite touching.”

She was aghast. There went the last five pages of her term paper. It is true that the meaning of “Used to Love Her” has been up for debate since Slash attributed it to Axl’s dog in a late 80s interview, but other quotes from the band suggest it is as explicit as its face value.

Your interpretation, and perhaps your enjoyment of the song, depends on your perception.

That isn’t unlike the digital advertising industry today. There are so many ways that brands are being marketed, technology is being used and engaged users are being targeted that aren’t beneficial to anyone.  But we could effect change for better results if our perception of digital advertising were seen from a different angle. For example, at our company, we have created a solution to eliminate the inefficiencies and waste in the system, for those who are mindful of their digital experience and open to the reality that it can be dramatically improved, if given the ability to be put in control.

There may be no better lyrical illusion written than Semisonic’s seminal “Closing Time” that first became popular 15 years ago and has recently found resurgence in film and television.  If you were into the bar scene back in the late 90s, hearing the opening piano chords immediately made you wistfully (or lustfully) think of the one who you hoped would take you home.  The imagery replete with the emotional machinations of both the excitement and disappointment of last call, the song emboldened a generation of drunk, lip syncing 20-somethings to make one last effort to seal the deal.

But you likely had it all wrong.  It has nothing to do with a bar shutting its doors.  It’s about giving birth.

At least that is the intended meaning of the song as it was written by Dan Wilson, the singer and songwriter of Semisonic.  Drummer Jacob Slichter wrote that “it was a song Dan had written in anticipation of fatherhood, a song about being sent forth from the womb as if by a bouncer clearing out a bar,” and Wilson confirmed as much in concert in 2008. Given this new perspective think about some of the lyrics now:

“Open all the doors and let you out into the world.”

“Time for you to go out to the places you will be from.” (your place of birth)

“This room won’t be open ‘til your brothers or your sisters come.” (your siblings)

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” (life begins/pregnancy ends)

“I know who I want to take me home.” (Mommy!)

That is a sobering shift in perspective.  While it could be said that there have been many ‘last calls’ that have led to a delivery room, the difference in meaning between intention and perception is as vast as the reality gap in advertising.  It is particularly noticeable with three of the primary parties in the digital equation – the brands, the technology and the consumers.

John Wanamaker famously said as early as 1897, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the problem is I don’t know which half.” Over one hundred years later, the Internet promised that it would finally grant us transparency and give us the ability to better measure effectiveness, yet it has fallen quite short.  Even with detailed metrics, brands are still wasting a significant portion of their spend. It’s not just that money is being siphoned by the hundreds of touch points that have increased the distance between the brand and the consumer, but also by a system that has evolved in which efforts to target has been severely missing the mark; like the archer who suddenly has lost his depth perception.  The brands are sold on multifarious solutions to get closer to their target market – demographics, behavioral, contextual and the latest, retargeting – and it is precisely this noise that has created the disparity in perception.  Though brands have been sold these tools to get consumers to convert to clicks, the reality is it is still just a guess.

Likewise, consumers of digital content perceive a landscape that isn’t what it could be. At my company, we have researched user interaction with digital and mobile advertising and what we hear repeatedly is that people are frustrated with irrelevant ads.  While this is not shocking, it is interesting to note that each individual often doesn’t start out, when asked, cognizant of what exactly frustrates him or her about advertising.

Invariably, the first thing someone says is that they hate ads and want all ads blocked.  Once they are reminded that Internet, mobile and TV content – on a macro scale — cannot exist without brand support and educated that within the next ten years he or she will see over a million ads, it becomes understood that the frustration is not with the existence of ads but that they are largely irrelevant, impersonal and/or untimely.  When consumers are explained how they are being targeted, they often express discomfort (“that’s creepy”) and shock (“they actually do that?”).  Particularly when re-targeting is explained, people are most often at odds.  Consumers want messaging, deals and offers that are targeted to their tastes and preferences and, even more specifically, when they are in-market for any number of items.  But often all they are getting is messaging based on best guesses. Not all marketers are wise enough to use the more advanced targeting and predictive modeling capabilities and technologies on the market today.

For the most part, the ad technology tools in the middle of the equation are not what they purport; to either the brands or the individuals. Make consumers explicitly aware that their e-mail is being read for marketing purposes (contextual) or that a site visited, even just once to consider a gift for a spouse or kid, will follow them wherever they go for seemingly the next three years (re-targeting), and they shudder.  The brands are told they can get their message across to a more defined target but the ecosystem of current technology tools are not meeting that promise.  The perception by some in the industry is that the latest ad tech tools should be making it easier for brands to target consumers but the fact is the increased number of methods and complexity of the technology is just making the distance between brand and user greater, not to mention the money being wasted. Just look at the latest Lumascapes ( and see how confusing the middle of that jungle looks.

What is the solution?  How do we cut out much of that middle to give brands a shorter, more direct path to get to consumers that are in-market?  How do consumers avoid irrelevant messaging and receive ads, offers and deals from just the categories and brands that interest them? For those of us somewhat obsessed with this challenge and opportunity, our endeavor becomes to replace every digital ad the consumer sees, everywhere they are (web, mobile, tablet, tv) with exactly what they want. Based on the tastes and preferences that each consumer opts-in to tell us – as well as the timing of when they are in-market for a particular purchase – we will strive to eventually make this a reality. The process is fun, easy and engaging and takes as little as 45 seconds.  People convey to us as much or as little as they want. Consumers raise their hand; we make sure the brand reaches them.

And then everybody’s perception about how digital advertising should be working in 2014 will be much closer to reality.  Some other beginning’s end – as the song could have very well been describing – is the era of irrelevant ads and wasted brand dollars.  For consumers who want control of their digital experience, this is their new beginning.

Marc Baskin is the co-founder of inControl Ads, a technology platform that puts consumers in control of their advertising experiences across all devices and screens. He has helped several start-ups go from just a few people, to public companies. Marc frequently writes pieces regarding the industry, as well as culture, history, and science.