“But Pooffles! Don’tcha wanna follow the latest clone from Zed-Factor?!?”
There were two things that drove this blogpost. The first was two visits to the cinema. The second was changes to a number of social media platforms that have led me to switch off from their standard social media clients and onto new ones – ones that mean I don’t have to put up with their “promoted stuff”.
As the adverts at the cinema kicked in, I could almost feel myself becoming a zombie…a consumerist clone as the bombarding of products that I had no desire for were thrown relentlessly at me. First time around I tried to read a magazine but could not drown out the sound. Second time around, it was noise-cancelling headphones plus music plus magazine/Twitter. Result!
I’m not very good with adverts and the advertising industry. I find many of the adverts of today bland, patronising, intrusive, annoying and at times a damn sight disruptive. But then in the grand scheme of things I’m not exactly their target audience. I don’t think I ever have been. I can’t think of the last time I saw an advert that made me think **Oooh! I want to buy that!** Maybe it was becoming aware of all things Adbusters back in the late 1990s with their iconic posters.
The problem I have with advertising is that, as with social media it is very difficult to switch off. The internet is full of reports on the impact of advertising on children. This was also an issue The Government looked into back in 2009. I can’t imagine much came of this – in part due to the general election the following year along with none of the mainstream political establishment wanting to take on such a vested interest such as the advertising industry and the big businesses that bankroll them. Make what you will of the Key Principles of the two advertising codes of the Advertising Standards Authority, along with their funding model. While people may be able to complain about individual adverts, we can’t complain about intrusive saturation advertising.
In the cinema you are a captive audience waiting for your film to start. On TV I can’t help but notice how many of the TV channels that have programmes normally 30 minutes long are scheduled to last 40 minutes – just to get more adverts in. Some of us are in the habit of channel surfing, while others have taken to putting the mute on when the adverts are on. I currently have a bad habit of watching TV while my laptop is open, so switch from social media to TV and back again. (New year’s resolution is to break this bad habit as it means I can’t sit still for five minutes without wanting to be distracted by something else).
On social media, a number of recent updates seem to have been made for the benefit of advertisers – one where it’s much easier for the social media platforms to demonstrate to advertisers that their adverts are getting through to people. I see it regularly on normal websites too – where adverts for specific websites that I’ve purchased goods from or browsed through in the past are there in all their glory, saying “Hi Pooffles, buy our mokkollokkollokkolate!!!”
Free lunch vs subscription
The problem firms face is that in social media world, people like having a free lunch – a lunch that they both like and have gotten used to. Subscriptions mean paying up and/or handing over personal information, which does not make for the free flow of information. Advertising helps pay the salaries of those who put together the useful information, but saturation advertising potentially kills the geese that lay the golden eggs. I’ve already flagged the issues of the carbon footprint of SPAM and the sharp demise of previous social media platforms such as FriendsReunited and Myspace. There’s no reason why the current market leaders of social media platforms should remain at the top. Twitter’s “brand friendly” revamp along with the huge investment from an oil billionaire makes me think that the pressures to generate returns on that investment will only become greater.
The “free lunch” mindset stands in stark contrast to the scene during my school days. Who remembers the days of paying £15 for CDs in the mid-1990s or £40 for 8bit/16bit games in the early 1990s? (I can’t bear to think what that would be at 2011 prices). The music ‘offline retail’ industry has since imploded as a result of the advances in digital media.
The problem as many media platforms find is with funding streams. Do you go for the funding-through-advertisers model or do you go for the subscription model? Rupert Murdoch made a very shrewd decision in the early 1990s when going after the broadcast rights for the new FA Premier League – something that ITV in my view has never recovered from. In order to persuade people to subscribe to his new satellite TV network, he and his team presumably asked themselves what things on TV are people particularly brand-loyal to. The sales of football shirts despite their high prices during the early 1990s was an indication of this loyalty at a time when football was coming out of the image doldrums of hooliganism of the 1980s – especially after Italia ’90 and “Gazzamania“. Fans felt a strong enough loyalty to top flight football that they were prepared to pay that bit extra for the football, along with the concept of all these new TV channels. With the twin income streams of subscriptions and advertising, ITV both looked and felt clumsy, clunky and dated in comparison. I dare say that it still does as far as football coverage is concerned.
One of the reasons why I like the BBC is because of its lack of adverts. Essentially it’s at the opposite end of the advertising vs subscription spectrum. Sky is in the middle with both, ITV remained with advertising following its ill-fated adventure with OnDigital/ITVDigital. The BBC has its faults – perhaps the subject of another post, but being the recipient of what is in effect a compulsory subscription model, it doesn’t have to worry about advertisers.
How to go about reining in the advertising industry?
You only have to look at the problems health campaigners face with alcohol. It took a long time to put big restrictions on tobacco advertising. This isn’t about individual adverts, rather the established practices of an entire industry along with the other industries that they work for.
Given that advertising employs a huge number of people, is a key sector to the economy and a growing export earner, politicians will inevitably be wary of wanting to go after an industry that seems to be one of the few ‘successes’ in the current economic climate. Given that advertising is amongst other things the art of persuading people to do stuff (or buy stuff), chances are advertisers will be quite good at persuading politicians of the merits of their cases too.
Dealing with saturation advertising is not something that can be dealt with in isolation. It involves looking at the problem of income streams for the providers of information and services we like that we currently get ‘for free’ (or in return for being advertised to) as well as looking at the relationships between advertisers and firms that employ them, and the politicians that regulate them. With that, I don’t even know where to start.