Friday, 20 June 2014



For Whom the Bell Tolls


American automobile nabob Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line. He also ensured that his employees were paid well enough to be able to afford one of the black Model Ts they’d assembled. In its infancy this business model was a closed circle, no advertising required, the proliferation of product and the status associated with it created more demand.


Surplus is the great engine of civilization. Too much of something must necessarily lead to trade with another group coping with a similar problem. Surplus created a division of labour and allowed some clever souls the time, well used to tinker with technology and science, to advance beyond the ingrained knowledge of mere seed sowing and animal husbandry. The ultimate outcome was mass production, which must necessarily cut artisan corners for the sake of efficiencies.


The end result of the Industrial Age was not a surplus of valued goods but a glut of inventory that had to be moved. It’s no coincidence that modern advertising began with the invention of the (then) incredibly fast steam powered printing press and the rise of newspapers. Thus, the birth of mass consumption (perhaps it’s no accident the phrase reads like a disease). Advertising is viewed with suspicion by intelligent folk, and rightly so. It is alchemy and vague voodoo jargon heaved up into the back of the cart before the horse named Branding. It is a seductive and elaborate come spend hither. Only a fool would mistake its message of persuasion as objective. But when ads are skewed so elegantly and exactly, when demand is up and the factory lines are moving and the stakeholders are all getting a return on their investments, it’s glorious. There’s no denying that properly executed advertising works.


I have spent a quarter century in the advertising industry, just another person behind the curtain. I have worked with colleagues whose cleverness and creative genius bordered on the sublime; suits who had a better grasp of their client’s industry than their client. What has also struck me through the years has been the reluctance of new businesses, start ups, to forego the costs of advertising within the budgets of their initial business plans. Advertising is typically deemed an unnecessary expense until revenue begins to snowball. My question was always, Yes, but how are you going to sell anything, make money, if nobody knows about you?


Amazon’s new Fire phone may make that query moot.


The Digital Age has confounded the advertising industry as much as it has the record industry. Standby traditional delivery systems no longer apply. Network TV viewership is declining as is readership of newspapers and magazines. Social media meanwhile got hip in a hurry. BMW posted some short films on YouTube. And wasn’t the subservient chicken hilarious? If only there’d been a smart code thingy on its ass! Now that would’ve created buzz, perhaps even a tipping point. You can like Pepsi and Doritos on Facebook. If you are vacuous enough, Kraft’s monster cookie spin-off, Mondelez, will send you witty tweets about sweets if you encourage them. Gullible consumers have entered into a very sad and one-sided relationship. Advertisers shout, But it’s interactive! Personal!

Amazon’s new Fire phone has done an insidious end run around that. This little fella, designed for one-handed use, comes with the acme of mass consumption apps. See something you like outside on the street in real life? Just scan the bar code or take a picture and hit send. The Amazon store is open. The Fire sale is on. The traditional persuader is circumvented, abandoned at the altar of consumption. Advertising is no longer influencing the transaction during a time when it’s easier than ever to buy. The irony is that advertising itself fostered our culture of immediate gratification and now may have an ever shrinking place in within it.

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