Consumers to Advertisers: “Go Away!”

Here’s a shocker: Consumers don’t like advertising.

Yup, it’s official. According to a new Yankelovich study, more consumers have “wholly negative” feelings (36 percent) about advertising than “wholly positive” (28 percent). A majority (60 percent) have a more negative opinion than they did several years ago; and 69 percent want mechanisms that block advertising completely.

Though Yankelovich admits direct comparisons aren’t totally valid, a comparison it made with a 40-year-old American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) study shows an incredibly precipitous decline in opinion overall.

Consumers don’t love us.

And why should they? In the past few years, advertising has moved from being an annoyance on TV and radio to a full-fledged assault on personal space in the forms of spam, pop-ups, and spyware on people’s computers.

Product placement has invaded movies and TV to a point where it’s becoming indistinguishable from commercials. Sporting events have dissolved into logo salad, and celebrities of all stripes are so eager to endorse products that such endorsements have become irrelevant. It’s nearly impossible for consumers to go anywhere and not be confronted with intrusive marketing messages. They’re starting to tune out.

The Core Problems

The problem may run deeper. It’s one we must all address to break through and connect with customers. It’s not just that their attitudes have changed, but their lives have changed as well. Advertising’s not changing with them.

Probably the biggest underlying issue in ad resistance revolves around control. Media choices have expanded beyond what anyone would have imagined a decade ago. Lifestyle choices brought about by access to information, expanding affluence (and, paradoxically, increasing joblessness), internationalization, and the overall pace of life have created a world where consumers increasingly feel out of control and unable to plot their own destinies. Intrusive, constant advertising streams contribute to that perception.

Recent battles over music downloading, personal video recorders (like TiVo), and fights over spam all have to do with consumers wanting to take that control back.

Entertainment is also an issue. In a stressful, constantly changing world, consumers seek escape. They don’t like it when the escape they find through movies, TV, or the Internet is constantly interrupted by commercial messages.

Today’s consumer is also strapped for time. Between running the weekly kid-activity marathon, trying to keep up productivity at work, and juggling all life’s choices, consumers constantly report feeling a lack of time. When we intrude on precious personal time and reduce the value of that time by asking them to give more time to us, resentment ensues.

A lot of this resentment may be related to an increased range of choice and the noise that results from those choices. There are literally hundreds of millions of Web pages, hundreds of cable channels, and innumerable publications for consumers to chose from. The information age’s curse is information, and lots of it.

Consumers are searching for answers but not finding any. They can’t cut through the noise to get to the signal they so desperately seek. If you’ve marveled at search engine marketing’s (SEM’s) success, this is the reason: SEM cuts through the clutter and is viewed (for the most part) as helpful. SEM cuts through the Web’s noise.

Some Possible Solutions

It’s easy to bury your head in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem. Don’t. It’s there, and it isn’t going away any time soon. Succeeding in today’s hostile environment (and tomorrow’s more hostile environment) requires thinking beyond the old methods.

We must find new methods that mesh with what consumers are looking for. Fighting them doesn’t work. Look at the most successful brands of the last few years: MINI Cooper, Google, Starbucks. That pattern of success comes from creating products and marketing that mesh with the lives of the consumers who use them.

Ideas for new marketing that may fit more closely with the lives of the consumers we’re trying to reach:

  • Infomercial banners. “Huh?” you say. I hear you. But think of this: If people are having trouble figuring out what to buy, why not use rich media real estate to help them out? Rather than try to make rich media a poor substitute for TV, use interactivity to present multilayered product information, online demos, and other information that assists the buying decision and doesn’t require users to leave what they’re doing to go to your site. Give them control, provide a level of entertainment, save them time, and help them negotiate the choices.

  • Advergaming. I’ve written plenty about this in the past. Companies have begun to get on the gaming bandwagon. It makes a lot of sense. People love games. In fact, the game industry is becoming bigger than the film industry. Marketers can enjoy the benefits of brand immersion beyond any other medium (short of theme parks such as Disney). The best example so far is America’s Army. Check it out for an example of how advergaming should really work.
  • Entertainment Enough has been written about Burger King’s Subservient Chicken that I don’t have to rehash it here. Numbers don’t lie: over 45 million hits in a couple of weeks. Will it sell chicken sandwiches? Too early to tell. But believe that a lot more people are talking about Burger King.
  • Buying tools. Assisting the consumer with a purchase decision can be a powerful way to drive sales, build mindshare, and cut through clutter. The success of sites such as REALTOR.com, Buy.com, Hotels.com, and others indicate consumers like companies that help them negotiate the tidal wave of choices they face.
  • Delight. Let’s not forget that delighting customers with new, offbeat, useful, fun, and unexpected messages cuts through the clutter. Mini Cooper has done a fantastic job (check out the print sticker campaign in this month’s Wired for an example). And the success of so much viral marketing (see ViralMeister for examples) shows that people like stuff that delights them and makes them say “wow!” Not only do they notice the messages, they also form a more positive impression of the brand.

People don’t like what we do. Time to own up to it and respond with new methods to change that perception. If it’s results we’re after, we’re going to have to change with the times.

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