Ad Industry Self-Regulation: History Says, Better Than the Alternatives (or Your Money Back)

March 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rance Crain, President of Crain communications, and Editor-in-Chief of Advertising Age, offers a retrospective on advertising industry self-regulation going back to the good old, “Mad Men” days. We take it for granted today (or should be able to take it for granted) that product claims in advertising are credible and can survive scrutiny, but it was not always so. Reminisces Rance:

Colgate’s Rapid Shave, for example, demonstrated in TV commercials that its lather could shave through sandpaper: “To prove Rapid Shave’s super-moisturizing power, we put it right from the can onto this tough, dry sandpaper. It was apply … soak … and off in a stroke!”

Never mind that it took 80 minutes of soaking to penetrate the sandpaper or that the sandpaper wasn’t even sandpaper; it was really Plexiglas made to look like sandpaper.

Campbell’s Soup was called on the carpet for putting marbles in the soup bowl to better show off its ingredients in TV commercials. And Listerine was forced to run corrective advertising to admit that the mouthwash couldn’t cure colds or sore throats.

Advertising had to have its back to the wall, however, in order to make progress towards self-regulation. Rance Crain concludes by quoting Howard Bell, Chairman of the National Advertising  Review Board:

 “If there hadn’t of been a firestorm against the industry, ad people would have said we don’t need it, and some did anyway.”

The call for advertising self-regulation happened and it worked. The call is happening again, and it can work again.

Jonathan Salem Baskin Puts the Cards on the Table: Brands Died with Mass Media

January 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Please consider this statement:

Since 1980 the number of consumer products has grown and fragmented significantly. Today, for instance, there are in excess of 40,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) in the average supermarket, which is triple the number 30 years ago. Alongside, in response, the media business has grown equally fragmented in order to keep pace with the need of marketers to reach their many different target audiences within supportive media environments. In each case – consumer product and consumer media – the driver has been demand among consumers for personal value.

Hold that thought.

Now turn to the column by marketing consultant, Jonathan Salem Baskin, in Ad Age this week where he pointedly says:

“Brands and mass media are inexorably connected. Brands — the premise that ideas could be grafted onto (or over) businesses — came into existence hand-in-hand with the mass-media tools of the 20th century that created them. Brands haven’t survived multiple iterations of technology and cultural change; they were born in a particular moment in history, and that moment ended over a decade ago.”

And, he continues:

“Many brands are dead, only they don’t know it yet. They died when the mass media that delivered them fractured into endless outlets and communication became two-way, thereby making the ideas that differentiated one brand from the next harder to believe and nearly impossible to sustain. The problems that plague them aren’t just communications strategy but matters of substance.”

To be clear, brand substance is very much on Jonathan’s mind in his column. He writes:

“Nobody needs your brand because it is a cool or engaging idea. Nobody wakes up with any need or desire to spend more of their life with your marketing. Nobody needs your brand because you give money to charity, generate an incessant stream of online content, or because you’ve made up some special sauce factor that differentiates your product or service benefits from others through measurements such as an enhanced experience or a pervasive Twitter presence.

 “Brands are different only if they’re really different, and this year would be the perfect opportunity to come up with the substantive [emphasis added] reasons why consumers need yours vs. how you’re going to use neat new ways to tell them the same old things.”

This is good, earnest stuff. In all likelihood, we have a meeting with yet another brand consulting client of Jonathan’s to thank for having asked him once too many times, “Can you come back with a social media strategy?” after which Jonathan sped away thinking dark thoughts. Those thoughts turned into an Ad Age column that entreats the marketing world to, essentially, quit faking it.

Back to the beginning and the thought you are holding.

No one ever seems to want to make the connection between consumer product and media fragmentation as a thing that occurred jointly, organically, in response to consumer demand. In most cases, media fragmentation is regarded as a bad thing and product fragmentation is regarded as a necessary thing in response to an empowered consumer. They are never regarded together. Jonathan Baskin is no exception.

“Old media still drive the bus. Enough with the blather that CMOs are scared of new media; old media works, whether as the news context that drove awareness of Ford so its social-media entertainment got traction, or paid placements, as in the case of those hilarious commercials (and in-store price promos) that launched Old Spice’s viral video experiment.”

His column is remembering a time when brands issued brand promises and built consumer relationships by delivering on those promises. Now, he suspects, brand marketers are trying to issue relationships because someone said – lots of people said, actually – that the new marketing reality is about relationships. Of course, the reaction from consumers disputes this. Consumer groups, in fact, are seeking laws to restrain advertisers and force them to keep their distance.

“The reason old media work,” Jonathan says, “has everything to do with saying what you mean, and backing it up with tangibly real behaviors. These are the new currencies of successful and sustainable brands.”

Fine, except that old media has nothing to do with it. Any media will work for brands if buttressed by tangible behaviors that deliver on real brand promises, and no media will work if the substance of those promises is missing. These are not new currencies: It is an old saying that nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising.

But, Jonathan Baskin has made a vitally important point – in effect, a challenge to the marketing world. Brands, he contends, are an invention of the mass media era and now that mass media is gone, brands – many of them, at least – are dead.

Yes to the first point. No to the second. For one thing, if old media still drives the bus, as Jonathan says, old media is not gone or useless. Old media lives on in support of brands and the data says so. But in a deeper sense the history of the past 30 years says that brands are not just “inexorably connected” to “mass media”, but to all media. Brands and media have been equally affected by the desire of consumers for choice, which has led to diversity and fragmentation in each case. Rather than being what separates them, fragmentation is what joins them together – and, ultimately, what offers brands a way forward in the new media age, bus or no bus.

Media, however, is the operative term, not users. Users, Jonathan Baskin rightly points out, do not wake up “with any need or desire to spend more of their life with your marketing.” Old media worked because marketers were unencumbered by the idea that they could have a one-to-one marketing relationship with consumers. They blissfully built their brands relying on old media as the conduit for those relationships. In that way, media helped build brands, but brand promises are what built the relationships.

So, concludes Jonathan Baskin:

“This is the challenge for 2011: thinking past the distractions of vague hopes and useless noise and understanding the products, services, activities and processes that distinguish your brand from all others; identifying why any of it matters.”

Which could easily be recognized as a challenge to the broader media community – new and old – and that’s no coincidence.

Privacy is not Free. Consumers are not Cheap.

December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Corey Kronengold raises several important points in a post at DIGIDAY where, in essence, he argues a point made by others that privacy is not free: if consumers want content that is free they need to relinquish some privacy in order to enable the advertising that will pay for the content. Otherwise, last one out turn off the lights.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider this: maybe consumers should argue that they are not free, nor are they cheap, and if advertisers want to reach them they will have to pay the full value of the connection that comes through their publisher proxies.

Research that Burst released this week documents that consumers are well aware advertisers are following them around the internet based upon their observed media behavior (visits to travel and food sites, etc). No surprise, most them don’t like it or don’t care. This would be the group of consumers that advocates of “privacy is not free” would like to reach with the message that audience tracking is good for them.

The economics behind that message, however, are broken. The value of an audience erodes very quickly when it is separated from the content that helped define it – equivalent to driving a car off the dealer lot. Typical third-party audience prices online confirm this. Accordingly, the full value of the Internet marketplace as it relates to consumer, publisher and advertiser is being smothered today by audience targeting, itself confirmed by the fact that the internet meets or exceeds every media metric set by its competitors offline except for ad spending. This is why. Look no further. Media value is a prisoner online, cut-off from its roots, which are content.

Corey writes:

“Our ability to create or identify the value of those [independent of content] audiences sustains the long tail of the web where the inherent value of the content might not support its own existence.”

Like the Great Wall of China, the only observable feature of the Internet from space is the long tail. If, as Corey proposes, the value of content in the long tail is incapable of supporting its own existence the internet has a problem, worth billions. In actual fact, however, there was a long tail and content and consumers of that content before there was advertising; meaning, as usual, that advertising is really the weak force in the media equation. The strong force is the connection between content and audiences. It is strong enough, in fact, to radiate energy worth a $1.00 – $2.00 CPM even after audiences have spun-off from one destination to another in internet space.

Agreed. Privacy is not free. But privacy is not part of the media value equation, as in, media value = audience reach – audience privacy. If it were, TV would have been dead a long time ago. If it were, magazines would have converted subscription information into a vital, renewable resource. Sadly, we know, the opposite is true: renewals are down.

Renewals are down because content is free and content is the binding and disruptive media agent. Splitting the privacy atom online releases a puff of smoke, a bag of audience marbles that ricochet across the floor and a rash of consternation. Splitting the content atom releases – well, so far, Google is a pretty good example.

Sensitive About My Areas: Media Measurement Company TRA Matches Shopper Data to TV Set-Top Boxes

November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

It was only after five or 10 minutes of pondering the significance of new data from media measurement company, TRA, linking toilet paper purchasers to TV programming that it dawned on me: wait…how did they get that information? The answer, according to the story in Ad Age, is that TRA combined shopper card information with TV set-top box information and, voilà, showed that not only the internet can harvest valuable (in this case, personal) audience data for the benefit of ad targeting.

There was nary a mention of privacy in the story. Nor did it cross my mind until, as I say, I gave up trying to glean the opportunity in knowing that “Two and a Half Men” beat out “America’s Got Talent” and “Big brother” for “the distinguished title of the show most likely to get people to buy toilet paper.”

Actually, I think the sentence as it appeared in the Ad Age story probably misrepresents the research. I’m not sure it can be said that “Two and a Half Men” is “the show most likely to get people to buy toilet paper.” I believe the research says, instead, that the show reaches more toilet paper purchasers. There’s a difference.

I am a “Two and a Half Men” viewer (sigh), which is in syndication on local TV during the make-dinner hour in our house. The show is one long sexist bathroom joke. If it is getting people to buy more toilet paper, well…gosh…then, the results are hardly counterintuitive, as Ad Age suggests. Indeed, the results strike an enormous blow for advertising intuition and should motivate toilet paper marketers everywhere to pursue similar, below the waist programming.

In which case, we can avoid all the exertions and privacy entanglements that may be associated with matching offline shopper card data to in-home TV set-top box data.

Which entanglements, if we were writing about internet media, would certainly be the story here, wouldn’t it?

Unless it’s just me being too sensitive about my areas.

American Express Reports On Shopper Behavior (Operative Word: “Behavior”)

September 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s a companion piece to yesterday’s blog, Privacy Business. From MediaPost’s Marketing Daily comes the news that American Express has wrapped-up a study of four billion transactions across 90 million cards to glean the shopping behavior (operative word: “behavior”) of card holders. Some of what the report says they know (operative word: “know”):

1. Gender

2. Age

3. Purchases – where and how much

And, of course, they have the names, addresses and telephone numbers of everyone in the study; but that’s beside the point, which is that AMEX has aggregated some very useful behavior information (operative word: “behavior”), and it wasn’t until I was half-way through the article engrossed and thinking, “Well, that’s interesting”, and “Gee, how about that”, that it washed over me: wait…isn’t this, like, the online privacy issue in a credit card bottle? These are consumer behavior segments we’re talking about here, are they not!?

Oh yes they are.

Peering closer at the article I reached my hand in and felt around. “Please don’t bite me,” I thought, ready to recoil in an instant should anything slippery clamp hold of my wrist, pull me in or try to steal my wallet.

Guess what? Nothing. Not even a nibble.

Privacy business

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Cory Treffiletti has been reading the small print in the Privacy Policy of his auto financing company, which he shares in his Online Spin column at MediaPost. It says:

“The types of personal information we collect and share depend on the product or service you have with us.  This information can include: Social Security number and income, payment history and purchase history, credit history and assets.”

And also:

“Reasons we share your personal information – for our everyday business purposes, for our marketing purposes, for joint marketing with other companies, for our affiliates’ everyday business purposes, for our affiliates to market to you.  Can you limit this sharing?  No.”

As Cory points out, and as discussed in this space in the past, the online privacy discussion can seem terribly unbalanced at times. In a side-by-side comparison with the detailed personal information harvested in a variety of other business transactions – from magazine subscriptions to grocery check-out – the quality of data captured by online ad delivery seems positively benign.

Does the imbalance exist because we think consumers give explicit permission to capture personal information to the supermarket and their data partners, such as Catalina Marketing,  when they swipe their frequent shopper card?  What gives Cory’s auto finance company the right to share his Social Security number with marketing partners? The fact that he borrowed their money and was required to surrender his Social Security number in the process? 

There is an increasing amount of talk about the economics of privacy, and many people are pointing out that in an information-driven world privacy will be expensive. Yes, well, clearly privacy is already about money and already expensive: auto lenders are able to trade in sensitive personal information depending “on the product or service you have.”  You can stay off the grid, but only if you can afford to pay cash for your vehicle.

It follows that if we think advertising is a less explicit (and less expensive) arrangement between consumer and marketer, then we may be thinking that marketers should not be entitled to the detailed personal information that transfers to them offline through their explicit customer interactions. An online advertising exposure should be proportionately less personal and useful only in aggregate, which sounds, of course, like an apt description of the process today. 

Unless, of course, you don’t agree that advertising is a less explicit arrangement with consumers or that the cost of information is correspondingly lower. If there was no advertising and consumers had to foot the bill for all the world’s information there would be a) less of it, and b) it would be substantially more expensive. Information might even revert to the privileged classes.

In any case, I will go home tonight and read the privacy statement on our auto lease.

Will No One Rid Me of This Meddlesome Internet?

August 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reading the Wall Street Journal’s sensationalist account of online consumer “privacy” the past few days it is hard not to feel that as traditional media lies sick in bed its wrath against the internet smolders with intensity. Everything about the internet is hateful to it: the abuse of language, the contempt for news-making authority, the fact that it is free and popular; the fact that it is commercial and rich and reeks of new money; the fact that it is young; the fact that it delights more in science than art and ascribes a value to an audience apart from content. It is a hateful thing, and as Henry II wailed about St. Thomas Beckett 1000 years ago, one senses the voice of traditional media wailing also, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome internet?!”

Apparently, they’re working on it. Conjuring Cold War images with words such as “intensive surveillance”, “spying”, and “secrets”, the Journal paints a picture of an industry that “has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.” Suddenly, per the Journal, the Internet is a shadowy agency…secretive…with a Politburo.

Except that shadows and secrets are not especially useful to the business of advertising, which is pretty much dedicated to making things less secret and more obvious, especially things such as price and product attributes. A good case in point appears in Ad Age thanks to Michael Learmonth who writes an engaging piece about the pair of pants (short pants) that followed him around the internet until he couldn’t take it anymore. In need of shorts, he says, he went online to Zappos, rummaged around, found nothing he liked, and exited. The pants, however, were not easily spurned. Writes Michael,

 “In the five days since, those [short pant] recommendations have been appearing just about everywhere I’ve been on the web, including MSNBC, Salon, and The Guardian. The ad scrolls through my Zappos recommendations: Hurley, Converse by John Varvatos, Quicksilver, Rip Curl, Volcom. Whatever. At this point I’ve started to actually think I never really have to go back to Zappos to buy the shorts — no need, they’re following me.”

The moral of the story is that Michael lost his taste for Zappos, which is called brand destruction, which is the result of advertising overkill. Hardly secret and hardly new, I feel the same about half the advertisers on television, especially the local ones that drench commercial breaks in between Red Sox baseball innings. Advertising is about amplification. It lives in the open. Indeed, it forces its way into the open and what it does it frequently overdoes, as did Zappos.

Which means advertising is not in the clandestine business and it does not think clandestine thoughts when it comes to reaching prospects. To the contrary, it is a relentless over-communicator, and for years media outlets – newspapers, magazines, cable television and, of course, the internet – have sought to channel the din of messaging in ways that reduce the waste and lessen the noise. Online – and soon, perhaps, on television – that means using the observed media and shopping preferences of users to target advertising messages that would otherwise be out of context (i.e., right place). At the same time, it means using those same techniques to curb the number of irrelevant messages going to the uninterested, which would be spam.

The sub-text of the “privacy” question always sounds like a game of cat and mouse, advertiser against consumer. It is a pointless question. After all, who is for advertising? But if it is impossible to live without it – as it is – who is against great advertising?

This is the commercial opportunity online: great advertising. Relevant and timely and – we always hope – creative. The consumer opportunity online is largely the same: relevant and timely and, we surely know, abundant. Who could be against that?  

The King, perhaps?

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