July 08, 2013

The Web Is Not Medicine

"One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts." Oliver Sacks
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.
There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that consumers are any more "in charge" than ever. The closest we get to actual facts is the baloney that marketing windbags have hidden behind for years:  Consumers "say" they are more informed and less influenced by media. As if you would expect them to say anything else.

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.


Cecil B DeMille said...

The only things the consumer is in charge of are the remote control and the mouse. The only conversations they have involving brands are with their friends – not with the brands. And the only reason any of this bovine excrement about consumers in charge is even out there is because advertising, as an industry, is devoid of thinkers at the top.

Sheep. The lot of them. Worked for many. S'why I can't wear wool anymore.

TCWriter said...

Anyone who thinks the consumer is really in charge in the online space should research a couple web hosting providers (subject chosen from grim personal -- and recent -- experience), and then enjoy the specter of hosting ads stalking them for the next couple months.

I'm in charge? Really??

Davey said...

Why did I go to college? I could have received a major in Marketing and a minor in bullshit detection from TAC. You do good work, Bob.

Worker Bees, Inc. said...

I don't know who's in charge, except I'm positive it's not me. What I do know is that stuff that didn't exist 15 years ago -- and it's mostly internet stuff -- does change the way businesses need to market themselves.

Here's a little tidbit from what seems to be a trusted source: Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. Based on some independent research they sponsored they found that, "transactional data from Travelocity illustrate that if a hotel increases its review scores by 1 point on a 5-point scale (e.g., from 3.3 to 4.3), the hotel can increase its price by 11.2 percent and still maintain the same occupancy or market share." (http://www.hotelschool.cornell.edu/research/chr/pubs/reports/abstract-16421.html)

So, again, I don't know who's in charge, but if complete strangers are influencing what hotel I'd stay at and what I'd pay, that's a pretty strong impact that has not much to do with traditional advertising, right?

Jeffrey Summers said...

Using the "consumer is in charge" mantra frees ineffective marketers from accountability.

Jeffrey Summers said...

...except in the hotel space, Travelocity is now 'traditional' marketing

Shanghai61 said...

The consumer has been in charge as long for as they have had minds of their own. People who claim this is some kind of new phenomenon have clearly never understood how communication really works.

Marketers who think like this tend to be rather contemptuous of their
consumer. (Perhaps because they're scared of them, I don't know).

These morons tend to misinterpret what 'mass media' means. There never has been a 'mass audience', only a lot of bloody-minded individuals who all happen to be watching at the same time.

Meanwhile, said consumer (us) has always been able to mutter 'bullshit' at the insultingly moronic ads they run on our TVs and blithely ignore their brands on the supermarket shelf.

The only difference that digital technology has made is that now we can mutter 'bullshit' out loud. (If we can even be bothered to ...)

mediaczar said...

Agree strongly. However - point of information - that list of "top brands on Facebook" is - well, a list of TV brands (so it rather begs the question.)

Here's a more balanced list: http://www.pagedatapro.com/pages/leaderboard/fc/fan_count

It doesn't detract from your point; if anything, it offers context and support.

Martin Soler said...

The hospitality world has had a big change with online reviews etc. the big brands still rule but their position is slowly eroding. Now that users can check reviews, rates, location the "Hilton" isnt any more the huge deal it used to be. So there is a bit of truth in the mantra at least for the hotel space.

Jeffrey Summers said...

The Hilton isn't the big deal it used to be not because of online reviews, rates, etc but because the Hilton is no longer the better experience.