Thesis — Antithesis — Synthesis

“What is rational is real and what is real is rational.”
–Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The early 19th century German philosopher, Georg W.F. Hegel is best known for his system of inquiry into the nature of reality. This system is called the dialectic. Now, reading Hegel will confirm some of your worst nightmares about delving into philosophical writing. His work likely made his own contemporaries’ eyes glaze over.

Simply put, the dialectical method involves the notion that the form of historical movement (process or progress), is the result of conflicting opposites. This area of Hegel’s thought has been broken down in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hegel’s philosophy of history embraces the concept that a conflict of opposites is a struggle between actual and potential worlds.

A thesis can be seen as a single idea. The idea contains a form of incompleteness that gives rise to the antithesis, a conflicting idea. A third point of view, a synthesis, arises from this conflict. It overcomes the conflict by reconciling the truths contained in the thesis and antithesis at a higher level. The synthesis is a new thesis. It generates a new antithesis, and the process continues until truth is arrived at.

“Thanks for the philosophy lesson, Poindexter, but why are you wasting my time talking about all this longheaded mumbo jumbo?” some of you are saying. Others may be saying something more mean-spirited that can’t be printed here. And a select few of you are probably looking for a pack of clove cigarettes and the nearest caf&eacute to go sit at and revisit your college days, a copy of “Being and Time” sitting heavily on the table next to your latte.

Well, what got me thinking about this is the ongoing debate about whether online marketing is a direct response or a branding tool.

Now, I’ve written about this before here and elsewhere, and some of you may have heard me comment on the subject recently. But the debate is still raging. I thought that perhaps putting it in terms of thesis/antithesis, we might come to a synthesis that can take us to the next level.

I’d say that most readers, it is hoped, have come to a position that is already at the stage of synthesis — that is, you believe the medium accommodates both direct response and branding objectives.

The majority of activity in the online advertising space is direct response. A little over 80 percent of advertisers still use the medium specifically for direct response objectives. Advertisers in the space are still looking for a causal relationship between the advertising activity they are committing and revenue yielded as a result. Not that all advertisers don’t want this to some degree with their advertising, but traditionally the big boys understand that advertising is a more sublime endeavor that works over time.

The problem is that direct response can accomplish only so much in serving as a direct sales channel. At best, it is an ancillary means of sales and distribution. What do you do when you want to expand beyond the market of drunks, insomniacs, unemployed, and impulse purchasers that late-night TV and banner-ads has to offer?

We arrive at branding. The roster of advertisers many publishers are starting to sign these days is beginning to read more like those found in offline media. Traditional advertisers are finding their way to the Web, and it isn’t because they are hoping to get users to click and buy online. It is because the branding capabilities of the medium are being demonstrated. Advertisers interested in branding are getting involved as a result.

There is a third concept, a synthesis, which comes out of the conflict between direct response and branding. It is an idea that to some extent brings these two together. It is “engagement branding.”

The term comes from David Yoder, erstwhile media maven who retired from Andersen & Lembke a few years back. I don’t know whether he visualized the meaning of the term exactly as I’m using it, but the idea is something like this:

Branding is traditionally a “lean back” experience, a passive state of being awash in moods and tones tied to sound, motion, and images, which work in concert to elicit an emotional response from an audience that will connect with a given product or service.

Direct response is more of a “lean forward” experience, especially in the online space, where an audience is asked to actively submit to a call to action.

Engagement branding brings these two ideas together, allowing for the rhetorical exercise of convincing an individual that by interacting with a given product or service, she will alter her relationship with the world around her in a positive, meaningful way. It allows users to satisfy that need within the confines of the medium.

Online marketing brings direct response and branding concepts together and allows them to be something more than the sum of their parts.

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