When advertising's overfed suits and black t-shirts and Jimmy Choo shoes reach consensus, it's a pretty good bet that what they've agreed on will turn out to be very wrong.
One of the unchallenged truths that advertising's chattering class has advanced these days is that "the consumer is in charge." This cliché has sprung wholly formed from two conflicting hypotheses.
First is the idea that the Internet has turned us all into wise, truth-seeking, hyper-informed consumers.
Second is the idea that we have become largely inured to the harmful effects of advertising.
The problem here is in the belief that the Internet somehow counteracts the effects of advertising and marketing in other media. It is thought to be some kind of cure for the affliction of consumer-itis that has plagued us since the dawn of modern marketing and advertising. It is a lovely little fantasy.
The web is not a cure for the disease of marketing. If anything, it has helped create a more virulent strain. As a result, the consumer is no more in charge than she has ever been. If anything, the huge brands that dominate media, including the web, are more in charge than ever.
- Consumer brands that are dominant in traditional media tend to be dominant on the web. According to one source, the top Facebook brands are: Coke, Disney, Starbucks, Oreo, Red Bull, Converse, Skittles, Playstation, iTunes, Pringles, and Victoria's Secret. All of these brands were built in the traditional advertising world. The Internet has not diminished the power of these brands. It has created new opportunities for these and other leading brands to dominate in new ways.
- One of the startling and unexpected facts of consumer behavior is that our addiction to the Internet has not much affected our time spent with other media. In fact, time spent with TV in the past few years has reached record high levels. We are consuming substantially more media than we have in the past. Our web habit has not replaced our broadcast habit, it has added to it. If you are going to contend that we are spending far more time with media but it is having less influence on us, you have a very high logical hill to climb.
- I've always believed that a good touchstone for gauging what's really influencing people is to study what the culture is interested in. Today, there is nothing that people follow as assiduously as celebrity culture. Celebrity culture is 100% driven by media. Who would give a shit about Kim Kardashian if she wasn't all over media? Once again, it is a very dubious proposition to contend that media is dominating our cultural preferences but not our consuming preferences.
It has been my observation that over the 15 years that the web has been a mainstream medium, the big have gotten far bigger and have not been replaced by brands built on line as you would expect if "the consumer is in charge" crowd was right. Consumers are now facing more categories in which 2 or 3 huge enterprises dominate, not fewer.
The sentiment here at Ad Contrarian World Headquarters, as you might expect, is exactly the opposite from the received wisdom of the crowd. We believe that consumers are more influenced than ever by media driven ideas, imagery and notions. We believe the web has been a factor in this, not an antidote. The consumer is not "in charge" -- Nike and Disney and Coke and Comcast and McDonald's and Starbuck's et al have gained power, not lost it.
The idea that "the consumer is in charge" is an illusion that has been created by naive Internet utopians who think that the ability to tweet "Ford Focus sucks" puts them "in charge." It's been sold to us by people with a vested interest in the silly notion that the web is some kind of anti-medium that cures corporate brand dominance.
It is nothing of the sort. It is just another means by which the people who can afford to dominate media also dominate consumer behavior.