The Consumer Is Taking Control of Advertising

Back when we had a handful of TV channels, a few dozen magazines, a few radio stations per market, and outdoor, things were simple. Consumers, advertisers, and the media enjoyed such a simple relationship. No one really needed to define it as a contract. Yet it was there, a quid pro quo, something-for-something contract. It may have been unwritten, but it was real. Call it the advertising trinity.

Companies sell things. They advertise to induce consumers to purchase their products. The media provide vehicles to deliver ads to consumers by attaching them to content. Consumers crave good content (“good” is completely subjective) and are willing to view advertising to gain access to it.

Everybody wins. Consumers get their content, advertisers sell their products, the media sell the advertising.

This relationship has been around a long time. Until recently, it was pretty transparent. But we’ve reached a tipping point. The contract between those three groups is about to be voided. Technologies that give consumers the ability to interact with content in new ways are poised to take off. The advertising world isn’t ready to deal with it.

I mean technologies such as wireless and mobile networking, DVRs, RSS, spam filters, and ad-blocking software.

Geoffrey A. Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” discusses the chasm between the early adopters of a technology and pragmatists who really begin to engage it on a new scale. Many technologies that cause the advertising trinity breakdown are currently in that moment of crossing the chasm. All the early adopters who are likely to buy into them have done so. We’re now waiting for the mass market to pick up on them. Once that happens, the only thing limiting their growth is my own law of technology adoption:

The speed and breadth in which a technology will be adopted is directly proportionate to the amount of control that technology provides people over some aspect of their lives. The more control it provides and the more important that aspect of their lives, the faster and more broadly the technology will be adopted.

Human beings like being in charge. We’re control freaks. We like controlling things, and we don’t like it when our control is limited.

Don’t believe me? Hide the remote control tonight and watch what happens. Can you imagine watching TV without a remote? And that’s just basic functionality.

Technology is beginning to allow consumers to control their access to content, just like the remote control let viewers channel surf. Using a variety of technologies, consumers can control what they see, when they see it, and how they see it. They can strip portions of content out — such as ads — and they can share content with others.

It’s common for people to watch TV, movies, even sporting events they downloaded from file-sharing services. At a recent party, I mentioned I was going to see the new Spider-Man movie. Someone in the room said, “Oh, I’ve got that at home.” I corrected the person, saying I was seeing the new Spider-Man movie, assuming he meant the first one. No, he meant he’d downloaded a pirated copy from a file-sharing service.

Certainly, many people use file-sharing services for free content. But the success of legal music-download services proves the notion the main reason people get music from P2P services is they like the control. When a legal alternative arrived, people used it. The same is true of any content. People want to be honest and honorable. They also want control.

For those of us who speculate on the near- and medium-term future, big changes loom on the horizon. Look further than five years, and things get downright scary if you’re locked into traditional work methods.

I was born in the late ’60s. Mine was probably the last generation that grew up with black-and-white TV. I vividly remember when my cheap family bought our first TV with a remote control. When we finally got cable, I was a freshman in college.

My four-year-old daughter may be experiencing her own version of black-and-white TV right now, with digital cable. By the time she’s in her 30s, I expect there’ll be no more linear television. It’ll all be served dynamically on demand.

Technology isn’t the limiting factor. Anyone with broadband at home could do this right now (albeit illegally). With major developments in broadband Wi-Fi, you can expect this to handily replace broadcast TV signals.

People will control how they access content. It isn’t about letting them or stopping them. It’s inevitable. If we don’t start working on models that deal with this fact, we’ll have significant problems.

People want to do the right thing. They don’t want to steal content. They’re willing to watch advertising to “pay” for content. But they won’t wait for us to figure it out. They’ll change their content consumption habits right out from under us.

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