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Attention Gone Amuck? Time for a Wakeup Call!

  |  February 6, 2007   |  Comments

How far will marketers go to get attention?

How far will we marketers go to get attention?

More important, what's the collateral damage of pushing marketing to an obscene extreme? Any chance we might be hurting ourselves?

Consider the Super Bowl, the biggest marketing spending bonanza of the year. Yes, the ads once again generated buzz. We laughed plenty. But hey, let's admit it, the viewing audience was a bit distracted. So, too, were the news media, the marketing bloggers, and other key influencers.

Four days before the Super Bowl, the guerilla marketing attention grab in Boston gave an oh-so-horribly-well-timed black eye to the entire marketing community. Amidst this yearly festival of advertising, a time when consumers typically put their cynicism about advertising in a blind trust (for a few hours, at least), a dark cloud hangs over the industry. In the end, it triggered a conversation about the ugly side of marketing that kept on talking... and talking... and talking, right up to the game kickoff.

More specifically, last Friday, eight times as many consumers were talking about the Boston marketing controversy as were talking about Super Bowl ads. And trust me, it wasn't pretty!

Rather than dress up in our fanciest clothes for our date with Super Bowl viewers, we arrived in tatters. We were primed to engage, but Boston was enraged. And in the process, we confirmed consumers' worst fears about how far advertising will go.

The Seeds of Ugliness

But, hey, gimmicks work, right? The perpetrators got plenty of attention, didn't they? This novel marketing tactic stopped consumers right in their tracks and got the job done, no?

Then again, it's not as though there's a lack of precedent for warped thinking. Remember the days when "customer-centric" Orbitz saturated -- nay, overwhelmed -- the Web universe with obnoxious, animated, enormous pop-up ads? While market execs boasted the ads got the clicks, and hence worked from an ROI (define) perspective, nearly 99 percent of consumers despised the ads, and 70 percent of them ran for pop-up blockers. The collateral damage is a generation of consumers wearing "don't talk to me" signs.

Now the big theme is advertising ubiquity; ads everywhere, everyplace, and any time. Ominously, "The New York Times" recently dedicated a front-page article to this subject. It quotes respected advertising executive Linda Kaplan Thayer as saying, "Ubiquity is the new exclusivity." Thayer's also the author of a book entitled, "The Power of Nice." How's that for a kinder, gentler ad industry?

Consumers view marketing excessiveness across all ad platforms and channels as much more than mere annoyance. The excess has moved into the realm of an offensive assault, with marketers unilaterally rewriting the unspoken covenant built around the early days of TV advertising.

Consider Commercial Alert, a Washington, DC, advocacy organization whose stated mission is "to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy." Posted on its site is this:

Americans feel assaulted by ads. There are ads in schools, airport lounges, doctors offices, movie theaters, hospitals, gas stations, elevators, convenience stores, on the Internet, on fruit, on ATM's, on garbage cans and countless other places. There are ads on beach sand and restroom walls.

Maybe that's just reality, and perhaps it's necessary for our industry's viability. But let's not forget for a second that we're all complicit in this mess. We'd be remiss to pin all the blame on a couple hair-obsessed guerrilla marketers running around the streets of Boston.

The Credibility Factor

From shills to cheap thrills, we're just degrading the space and killing our cred factor. We're confirming to the world that we're taking, not creating, value. And as we saw in the flogging mess, our right hand often has no idea what the left one is doing.

Part of the problem is we keep sending mixed messages. Burger King execs herald a new way to think about marketing, from creating buzz to giving consumers total power, with gimmicks like Subservient Chicken. But you still can't send a suggestion to its Web site without obnoxious legal disclaimers that mock and belittle the consumer voice.

PayPerPost compensates bloggers outright for positive reviews, but the collateral damage is that we're blurring the line between trustworthy, authentic experiences and outright shills.

I haven't even begun to talk about word-of-mouth marketing, a subject of tortured dissonance for me. Yes, I cofounded WOMMA nearly three years ago, and how can I not be proud of the organization's incredible growth? But candidly, I worry that so many still misinterpret the power of word of mouth as something you can just buy, seed, or turn on overnight with a cheap gimmick, rather than being a long-term strategy emanating from great products, great service, and great experiences.

I feel a bit responsible and accountable for the misinterpretation. Perhaps we all should?

This Is Our Garden

How do we get our act together and keep the trust? Who's looking after the consumer and, in the process, protecting our long-term business interests as marketers? Why on earth is WOMMA the only organization stepping up to the plate with an ethics code or framework to guide responsible advertising and message practices?

When I worked at Procter & Gamble, all the major industry associations -- the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) -- were lining up with near idealistic fervor to ensure we protected a win-win, high-integrity space with advertisers. I know because I helped get them all in the same room for two days at the P&G-sponsored Future of Advertising Stakeholders Summit (FAST Summit).

Think about it. The tag line on the ANA Web site is "Leading the Marketing Community." But in the days following the Boston mess, nary a comment or even an acknowledgement of the event was made. Perhaps that makes sense; surely this is someone else's problem.

We need more parameters in advertising. We need clarity regarding what's reasonable and what's not. We need more disclosure. We need to keep the chatterbacking in check.

Most important, we need to trust our own guts as consumers. Admit it, you hate advertising intrusion. It drives you crazy. We rarely answer the phone at home, and we relish the thrill of zapping ads.

Once we acknowledge that reality, we'll find the right ad model that works for consumers and business alike. In the meantime, we must explain ourselves to an increasingly critical court of public opinion.

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Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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