Are ads just spam?

13 Jun

Here’s a provocative thought that came out of Tim Williams’ presentation at T-CAAN. (I swear this is the last post I’m going to do on his presentation. Maybe.)

“All ads within today’s controlled new media marketplace are spam.”

Now that will either induce outright dismissal, panic or apathy, depending on your level of investment in the issue.

Before you leap from a building or rear up on your hind legs to have a go at me, I would suggest we take that statement a step further first:

All ads are spam.

Now I’ve done it. All ads are spam.

This from a business that makes its revenue doing ads. Am I nuts? I can see the men in white suits coming for me now, so I better keep this brief.

First, consider your own behaviour.

Do you pay attention to Google ads up there in the top right hand corner of the Google results page? Of course you don’t.

Do you go for a pee break during the commercials? Of course you do.

Do your eyes seek out those banner and skyscrapers and leaderboards when you’re online? No?

Do you remember a single advertisement you saw in the newspaper this morning? Not even one? Of the 200 or so?

Ads have become consumer blindspots, precisely because advertisers are talking at their customers. That’s spam to most.

Consumers haven’t always rejected this approach. I think it’s actually been an evolution. Changes in behaviour, volume of messages, burnout, social media, consumer generated content – they have all put the customer in the driver’s seat. Success rates on traditional talking-at messages are spiralling downward.

But this same new reality of consumer-controlled media, where consumers pull the advertising to them, rather than the advertiser interrupting with one-way messages, suggests the way forward for marketers: Less pushing, more engaging.

The neat thing about conversations is that the good ones are always at least two-way. Unless, like me, you actually do talk to yourself.

If spam is the sound of the advertiser shouting at the consumer, it seems the time has come for clients and agencies to shut up and listen before they speak.


9 Responses to “Are ads just spam?”

  1. Shane June 14, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    I think any time an advertiser has a product/service that is largely undifferentiated with competing products, he will continue to use spammy, interruption-based models of advertising to the masses who would otherwise be perfectly happy continuing to use the other guy’s product. The conversations are one-sided because only the advertiser wants to have them.

    Better, I think, to have a remarkable, ‘purple cow’ product that meets a currently unfulfilled need or audience segment, so it becomes the consumer who wants to start the conversation. The trick is then to make it easy for them to start one with you.

    I guess, if the product can’t be remarkable, then it becomes the agency’s responsibility to create a remarkable brand.

  2. dougbrowncreative June 14, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    Great point Shane. You might also consider advertising as the tax for having an unremarkable product, because clearly great products find their markets without it. Starbucks for example.

  3. hitgirl June 14, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    I think it’s also the tax for a new (remarkable) product. Somehow we have to get people through the door for the first time. After that, it’s up to us to keep them.

  4. Mario Parise June 15, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    I actually disagree. Quite strongly.


    First, I came into advertising from the perspective of social media, “markets are conversations”, blah blah blah. I started my career criticizing advertising for the reasons you noted above, and many more.

    But you know what I discovered? With rare (but highly notable) exceptions, conversations fail to sell a damn thing. Yes, if you happen to be one of the very few brands consumers want to have a conversation with, that might work for you.

    And I can already hear people saying “maybe your problem is you’re not working hard enough to be worth talking to.” B.S. Conversations simply aren’t scalable. There can only be a few winners.

    Think about it. How many brands do you consume on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis? Now imagine they were all absolutely fascinating, doing nothing but good in the world. Imagine if every single one of them was worthy of holding a conversation with. Could you manage that many conversations? Would you want to?


    Which brings me to my big conclusion about why advertising is actually a beautiful thing: Advertising makes life simpler.

    For better or worse, I don’t have time to develop relationships and do all the hard research it takes to ensure I’m making a good purchase. Unless it’s for a car or a home, my decisions are almost entirely based on the advertising I’ve seen. After all, I really don’t care to learn about the company making my shirt. I recognized a brand name for which I have no negative feelings towards, saw a good offer, it fit with a need, and I bought it.

    Advertising makes that possible. Am I naive to look at it this way?

    Advertising gets to the root of the matter and helps us understand the world. (Sometimes it’s misleading, but that’s a different topic of, ahem, conversation.)


    Coming back to my initial point: our jobs are to sell products. Plain and simple.

    Statements about how people don’t pay attention to ads aren’t new. People have always said that. Just read the old literature. Pick up old copies of ad age. People have consistently claimed to not be impacted by advertising.

    They’ve decried it as evil, manipulative, and ineffective. (At least one of these things doesn’t belong… how can they all be true at the same time?)

    And so it is today. If you read the direct marketing journals, they’re having a ball laughing at the “general” or “brand” advertising crowd, once again crying about the sky falling. Meanwhile, the direct marketers continue to use scientific principles to make oodles of money.

    TV still works wonders. Print still sells. Billboards are hot. Direct mail continues to be highly effective and accountable.

    I love social media and conversations, and I think it’s wonderful if any brand has the nerve to put their toe in the water and see what happens. But if my job is to sell products (and it is) I’m not going to count on dialogue. I’m going to rely on what’s been proven to sell. Clients don’t hire us to experiment, they hire us to make the most of their investments. So far, social media has been less effective at selling products than it has been at selling the so-called social media gurus themselves.

  5. Lynne DeCew June 15, 2010 at 7:54 am #

    I’m with Mario Parise on this one. Social media is a great way for customers to spread the word about products they already love (or hate) – but it’s a questionable, unpredictable tool for marketers/advertisers who are trying to get the word out about a product, promotion, cause or issue in the first place.

    As for advertising being spam, of course it is when it’s irrelevant, annoying, stupid and/or ugly. But well-targeted, well-executed, well-considered advertising can be a beautiful thing.

  6. dougbrowncreative June 15, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    Thank you for the terrific responses and for kicking the stuffing out of my argument. That’s what the blog is all about.

    Just some clarification. By spam, I mean unsolicited, self-interested, one-way communications. Sometimes that stuff works great. But consumers still think of it as spam. It’s an attitudinal shift I’m talking about.

    Second, I’m not talking about social media. I didn’t really even mention it. The Campbell’s Soup idea is non-traditional. It generates buzz. Buzz creates conversations.

    To Social Media, it’s a piece of an overall communications strategy. Not a replacement of anything.

    What we can’t argue with is that people, like us here right now, are having our conversations in online spaces. Like this one. We are not defaulting to TV, radio and newspapers to engage with the world. We’re coming here. That’s why the digital environment is so increasingly critical to advertising success. It all hit home for me when I first went on Trip Advisor and I went, DAMN: It doesn’t matter how good the advertising is, it may generate interest in the resort, but the confirmation – or not – is coming to me from other consumers. The consumer marketplace is what we have created with the Internet.

    And Mario, I’m not sure our jobs are as much about selling products as it is about generating interest. Maybe that’s a shift that’s happening too. That’s what branding is right? You don’t have to say BUY THIS PRODUCT at the end of a good communications strategy.

    Thanks for contributing to this conversation. I remain bloody but unbowed!

  7. Mario Parise June 16, 2010 at 7:18 am #

    I think it’s great if we can get people to talk about a brand. I’m not sure it’s a realistic goal for most companies, but it’s not a bad thing to aspire to.

    However, I adamantly believe our only valid purpose as an industry is to sell.

    (K, if our client’s are non-profits, we’re selling ideas rather than products. I grant that in such a case, the client likely isn’t worried about profits as much as changing the world. But…)

    If a client is in business, they’re in the business of making money. Maybe I have an overly simplistic notion of this, but I was raised and taught that the only real business out there is the business of making money. Or, as Bill Gates so elegantly put it, the only thing you need to know about business is Sales – Costs = Profit.

    From that simple point of view, I consider our job to be Sales.

    If, at the end of the day, all the buzz and hype and hoopla we create turns out to be a really effective way to sell products – great! But my impression is that this is like swinging for the fences: you hope for a home run, but most of the time you’re going to miss. It’s ok for a team to have 1 Babe Ruth, swinging for those fences, but since he struck out more than anyone else in the league, the team also needed a whole lot of people who could consistently produce lesser (but reliable) results.

    (Sorry if I butchered the analogy. I’m not a baseball fan, but I like the story, k?)

    I don’t think everything needs to be blunt, with a BUY THIS PRODUCT call-to-action. My impression is that this approach is losing its effectiveness, but then again the direct marketing people continue to say it works wonders and they would know (since they track results better than anyone else in our industry). But I do think we need to sell. Sell, sell, sell.

    Or to borrow from 50 Carleton’s motto: It’s not creative unless it creates results.

    (I swear, I’m not trying to promote our agency. Just seemed appropriate.)

    I’ve probably ranted enough… thanks for the thought- and conversation-provoking post!

  8. dougbrowncreative June 17, 2010 at 5:05 am #

    Mario we sure are on the same page when it comes to results. For instance, we decided when we re-did our website last year to have a case study attached to any examples of our work. It’s what our clients are ultimately interested in and what we ultimately drive for.

    And it could just be semantics, but i figure when it comes to “selling”, people don’t really like salespeople, or being sold to, especially now with all the thousands of sales messages coming at us constantly. “Creating results”, or “Building businesses” brings all the other tools in our box into play, from PR to media training to engagement strategies and so on, which makes our our value to a client greater.

    My guess is that we are actually a lot closer in philosophy than our initial positions suggested and we are probably coming from the same place but in different parts of the country!

  9. Mario Parise June 17, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    You’re probably right 🙂

    Usually when I hear people talking about conversations, though, I find it’s people who’ve never been responsible for selling. I probably over reacted – sorry about that.

    I just know that when I hear people talk about social media (which I realize was not your point at all), most of it is B.S. How many social media gurus have declared traditional media to be dead? How many have said that traditional advertising doesn’t work? But the actual results say quite the opposite, don’t they?

    At the end of the day, I’d rather just test the ideas. If we have two approaches, one of which is very salesy in language, and the other conversational, run them both and see which pulls in the best results. If the salesy language does better, than it’s a better ad – even if it’s cheesy. If the conversation ad does better, that’s awesome. I’d certainly rather be doing interesting work and writing in a conversational way. But the sales – the results – have to be the deciding factor.

    Which is to say, I think we are in fact on the same page.

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