Advertising Blindness

Marketing in the age of advertising blindness, Part I: The Problem

JimAs I cruise into middle-age (or at least, I hope so!) I’ve found that the methods of self-improvement take on forms that heretofore would have been considered chores. Since I was always better at schoolwork than I was at loosing weight or going to the gym, the particular form of self-improvement I’ve recently engaged in took the shape of school. Last year I had the opportunity to study through a joint UC Berkeley/ University of Oxford program, and, being that the name of my media consultancy is Media Darwin, I took a class on the history of evolution.

The professor was a kooky and very interesting guy. A Dutchman orphaned in WWII, he became an English citizen and eventually a world-renowned collector of magic lanterns, an historian of science, and an experimental philosopher. I have no idea what that last one means. I’m not sure why he was teaching this class, and his pedagogic skills were less than good. But I learned a lot about evolution. Without getting too much in the weeds, evolution seems to work in two ways: slowly and iteratively; and also by what Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge called “punctuated equilibrium.” The concepts are not mutually exclusive, both happening by means of natural section. But whereas one path of evolution is a relatively long, drawn out and not very noticeable process, sometimes a dramatic event – usually changes in environment — can cause serious change in a relatively short period of time.

The same thing can be said to happen to humans. Only the kinds of changes we can point to that might be termed the result of punctuated equilibrium are manifest in behavior and mind-states, not necessarily in our bodies (though time will tell… maybe a few generations from now we will be born with narrow but wicked-fast thumbs and eyes that have a second lid to filter out blue light at will?).

After several generations of constant exposure to marketing messages in nearly every size, shape, time and space imaginable (so far toilet paper has been spared any “brought to you by,” but for how much longer?), people just don’t see messages any more. This doesn’t mean advertising isn’t still having some impact, but most marketing messages go unnoticed.

In order to live our lives as best we can with just enough of the appropriate focus to do so successfully, we have evolved to a state of advertising blindness so that other things that require our attention can get through. There is no medium were this is more apparent than digital.

Ad messages are no longer competing just with other ad messages; they are competing with every signal made possible by a media environment that has made nearly every human being a signal. The medium is no longer the message: the man is. This means he is also the medium.

The Internet of things is both a signal creator and a signal multiplier. Every Tweet, status update, Tumblr, Instagram, Pin, text, email, Vine, as well as all the other forms of content from more traditional sources that are still of interest, is competing for our attention. Can a brand really expect to compete in a newsfeed with pictures of your friends’ kids, your friends’ vacations, screeds against Democrats, screeds against Republicans, the latest slacktivist craze (e.g. Ice Bucket Challenge), #tbt pictures, and videos of Darth Vader and a bunch of Storm Troopers dancing to “Can’t Touch This?”. This is in addition to your kids’ need for attention, your cat’s need for attention, your boss’ need for attention… oh, and your wife’s/husband’s need for attention.

Given this environmental condition, it should come as no surprise that one of our adaptations should be advertising blindness. Actual blindness for the sake of survival,

We don’t actively see ads any more. And in some cases, we actively try not to, i.e., DVR ad skipping.

It’s hard enough that the human attention span is like a tomato: every time you slice it, you lose a little juice. After so many slices, the juice is gone. What is a marketer to do?

To overcome this evolutionary adaptation to an always-on environment, marketing is going to need to engage more of the human senses. Sight and sounds alone – amidst all of the other sights and sounds – isn’t enough to break through the barrier of passive and active advertising blindness. It’s going to take a kind of sensory synthesis that really only digital can serve as the catalyst and, in some cases, the connective tissue.

And what that is? Find out next week.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.