Short and

by greg stene

Two things happened over the last 18 hours that have forced me to go back to a book about advertising that I wrote in 1997. I’ve done a bit of updating over the years, but the sense of the book is from that time. It’s aged well. That’s unfortunate, as you’ll see.

The event of 18 hours ago was a live presentation by a visual digital artist that I attended. Some incredible on-the-fly work with the video images of the candidates for the presidency and VP. Quite reminiscent of Max Headroom. Yet, quite original. And about 15 minutes long. The artistic/political point could have been made in 5 minutes.

The second thing, four hours ago, was running into an article in Time, (9/1/2008, pages 57-58) titled “Haiku Nation,” about how some elements of social communication are being reduced to as few words as possible (a 12-word novel, a four-word film review, and so on).

Why? The author, Jeremy Caplan, notes Twitter’s 140-character limit, but not as a causal element. Maybe it’s because Millennials, as the stereotype of the generation tells us, are impatient and things have got to be short. And maybe … maybe it’s because of advertising.

I found the chapter of my book. Condensed it. The idea of short stuff is just past mid-point. If you don’t have the patience to take the road that’s laid out for you.


Book Selection from Advertising’s Identity Crisis, by greg stene, ph.d.:

It comes down to this, there’s great advertising; and there’s all the rest, which is basically worthless in contrast to the great stuff. The bad stuff is nothing more than a waste of TV time, client money, and the TV time of every one of us exposed to the garbage. If you have any question about whether this notion of great vs. dreck is valid, just watch a couple hours of TV. Seriously watch it. Don’t nod off junkie-like while it’s going on. No making strange and wondrous love in the couch while it’s on. Pay attention. What commercials (spots) do you remember at the end of two hours? You’ll end up with two kinds of stuff: the great wonderful, and the great miserable. All the nonsense in between is just stuff that gets kicked into the dusty corner of the dark closet in your mind and mercifully set ablaze every once in a while during mental spring cleaning, or a night of too many beers.

So how do we make things better? How does the advertiser respond to the notion of a responsibility to demand decent work from their agencies, and how do we as people insist that the advertisers and their agencies clean up their acts? Strangely enough, I figure this begins by advertisers (business and client both) trying to become more effective. To do their jobs properly and increase their sales against those who continue to screw around. Right now, as far as I’m concerned and believe I’ll show, most all of them are just flailing away, using out-dated market research and self-centered marketing concepts which actually ignore the audience (as much as they claim to be guided by the audience) and creating advertising from that worthless pile of mindless thinking.

We come back to the science argument again. If any of the stuff currently (or in the past) that is being done was truly working, if the marketing and creative thought processes were indeed so good at producing effective advertising, it seems logical to assume that bad advertising wouldn’t be so prevalent. People would just glom onto what works and use that. But they don’t. Because there’s precious little to glom onto. In contrast to the great stuff you’d expect if advertising were a science that worked, bad advertising is everywhere. It’s the rule, not the exception you’d expect if there were a proven process of making it work. Therefore, it’s not outrageous to assume that very few people have even a clue about how to produce great advertising.

It seems that the advertising industry is becoming separate, and separated from the people it is trying to talk to (I’m not a target … I’m in advertising and I’m too damned knowledgeable, too sophisticated for that crap. You’re the target). In losing touch with that sense of commonality with the folks who buy stuff, the ad biz is losing touch with the means of communicating meaningfully. And the upshot of this widening separation of the ad folks from the home folks is that that distance separating the concept of the ad, and the life of the people it’s trying to reach, is widening and driving the quality of advertising straight into the ground. It’s burying the quality of the creative. The value of advertising to touch, inform and entertain each of us consumers is becoming lost. Simply put, the ad folks can’t relate to us home folks anymore and what they produce is dreck.

If they saw themselves as consumers, and evaluated the advertising that they create in that consumer-role, I don’t believe most advertising professionals would allow a lot of the garbage that comes out of their shops on to the airwaves or to take up space on increasingly precious paper in newspapers and time on air.

The profession of advertising, indeed the very concept of advertising itself, must move beyond the notion that it merely peddles products and services. The language of advertising: the short sound and visual bytes; the compression of massive amounts of information into layers of visual, words and sound data (like that seen in a simple ad for MCI of a young girl in the desert … consider what she is doing there alone in the desert … why do we listen to what she has to say … why do we imagine that a young girl of about 12 years of age would wonder to the sky about advances in communication … the thing is, we take it in and accept it. Why? Why does this improbability work?), or a music video on MTV; all of this is how we will communicate in the future.

Short. Bytes. None of us will have time for the full story, anymore. If we even have that time today.
We will soon live in a world where the common language is sound and visual bytes. This is exactly what advertising is. It compresses reality on many different levels, and if we were to unpack the meanings in a 30-second TV spot, a good one would take hours to explain. But it is done in 30 seconds, not hours.
A lot of the methodology for communicating by bytes is already in the hands of the ad pros. The talent, latent and unexercised as it may be, is at least partially there. This thing called advertising is the place from which the new forms of communication will emerge.

We have a future ahead of us where, like it or not, advertising is going to be asked to take on a more active role in socially responsible activities. Advertising will be a vital part, if not the vital part in a mix of activities designed to positively affect our society and the societies of others. It should be noted that our private-enterprise advertising can end up paying for most of the research-and-development costs in making advertising more meaningful to the people who see, read, hear it, simply through the experimentation the advertising agencies are supposed to be doing as part of the business their clients pay them for.

But, because today’s ad agencies are in general not experimenting to become better, they are acting negligently through default, in regards to their responsibility to meet the communication needs of their customers, and this and other countries. And in the end, this failure of the advertising industry to realize its potential to help build our societies is exactly why it is so important to bring the business of advertising to accountability.

This is not a time in history anymore when we can raise issues like these and pay them lip service and expect our coming generation or “someone else” to chew it through and eventually come up with a band-aid solution. We are at an unprecedented time in world history where we realize the need for, and are making fundamental changes in the way we all do business, live our lives, and rule ourselves when we have that right.

The advertising profession does not have the choice anymore to walk away from the questions that this book, other articles, and some concerned citizens of the world have raised. American advertising must go beyond its relatively trend-following Advertising Council work (remember those meaningless anti-drug commercials?), and actively move more aggressively into the political and social spheres. And it’s got to take its clients along for the ride on this roller coaster; with them either smiling in anticipation of the excitement of creating something new, or kicking and screaming with the fear of the coward.

So it’s the questions, more than the suggested answers in this book, that would seem of vital importance to our societies. If there are better answers out there than what’s suggested, we’d damn well better find them, and find them fast. But let’s start asking the questions now. At least let’s do that.
And now, another irreverent moment.

So, it is in the spirit of the hopeful carnival Geek, live chicken in hand and looking blankly at the expectant crowd in front of him on a warm summer night and thinking warmer thoughts about a later rendezvous with the Midget Dog-Faced Bearded Woman, that this book on the state of advertising today was written.

We in the advertising business certainly can’t be as mindless as the Geek, nor can we act as tastelessly as he acted, nor can we imitate him in our portrayals of what entertaining theater should be. What we must do in the future is something infinitely more serious than the crowd satisfaction found in the quick biting off of the head of a chicken, which sadly, is all that we seem to be doing today. If even that.

But maybe … maybe if we offered something worth looking at … maybe if we entertained and respected the people we talk to from the TV, or over morning coffee at the monitor hitting our spots on the Web … maybe if we realized and remembered that the people out there are the only reason we’re even being asked by our clients to perform … maybe if we thought about tomorrow in terms of years rather than merely as an ad placement in tomorrow’s morning papers … maybe they won’t send us to live with the lawyers and the Toadies after all.

1 reply »

  1. A very interesting post, though i confess to not being able to relate to it at all. Outside of The Economist, i see very few ads. I don’t listen to the radio (aside from baseball games that advertise businesses 450 miles away), i haven’t had a television in ten years, and i configured FireFox to not load the ads.

    I am a very bad, unpatriotic American…and for this i’m sorry (not really, but it seemed like the right thing to say)