Wall of Sound

My office has windows on three sides, so it tends to get pretty hot as soon as the outside temperature crests above 70 degrees or so. To beat the heat, I have a window air conditioner that runs on “high cool” pretty much constantly from May to October. Though it makes me more comfortable, it does make a lot of noise, a loud whirring that really starts to bother me when I first turn it on. Gradually I get used to it, and by the beginning of June I don’t even hear it any more. Friends who call while the air conditioning beast is on always ask if I’m in a wind tunnel or next to a highway. “Huh?” I ask, forgetting the loud whoosh. “Oh yeah, that. That’s my air conditioner.”

Humans tend to get used to stuff. No matter how annoying, loud, or anxiety-producing the stimuli, at some point our brains just can’t continue to process them at the same level as when the stimuli were new. Psychologists call such adaptation “extinction,” and it happens to us all. We just can’t stay engaged, enraged, interested, or entertained by anything that continues over a long enough period.

The time it takes for a behavior to extinguish varies from person to person. People with ADHD turn off quickly, while others can stay engaged in, say, Hummel Figurines for a long, long time. But it does happen.

I started thinking about this as I noticed a major upsurge in nontraditional advertising that strives to be everywhere, all the time. It’s been a while since Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners caused a stir by slapping Snapple stickers on mangoes. Today, such tactics almost seem quaint.

Now commercial messages are woven into announcements made on Alaska Airlines and in New York’s Penn Station. Antihomophobia campaigns are delivered in pink QueerCabs, which offer free rides in exchange for the pitch. Ads are pressed into sand at the beach and are growing on blogs. ESPN is even talking about creating football-shaped branded televisions that could offer exclusive programming, taking immersive affinity branding to a whole new level (and possibly creating a new revenue source, to boot).

None of this is new, of course. It’s all part of a trend that’s been going on for a long time. Between viral marketing, ambient marketing, advergaming, word-of-mouth marketing, stealth marketing, and all the other “marketing” buzzwords floating around, it’s clear media planners are advertising’s new creatives. Although there haven’t been any major breakthroughs in terms of visuals and copy lately (the YoungGuns Awards site not withstanding), conceptually we’re in a very interesting time.

It’s important we’re not blindly caught up in the trends. As my colleague Tessa Wegert pointed out last week, not irritating customers and prospects is just as important as great creative and placement. Consumer-surly tactics such as spyware and spam may “work” in an objective sense, but the damage they can do to a brand might provide a very powerful counterbalance to that effectiveness. There’s no doubt long-term customers are far more profitable than single sales.

And don’t forget about extinction. As anyone who’s moved to the big city knows, it doesn’t take long before you stop hearing the sirens, horns, and constant traffic roar. Sure, you notice it when it’s gone (as when you struggle to get to sleep during that first night on a country vacation), but it doesn’t take long to stop noticing it once you’re back inside it. Advertisers who strive to be everywhere may discover their messages blur into a haze of background noise and are no longer noticed.

What should you do? Very often, just stick to the basics. Search advertising works well because it meshes exactly with the needs of a consumer already motivated to seek out a product or service. Highly targeted opt-in email works because you know who you’re speaking to and often what they want. Contextual advertising placement works online because it matches the need to receive a message in a very immediate way. You get the idea.

This point of view may seem pretty conservative coming from me, but in an age in which the entire media landscape is in flux, sticking to what works may be the most radical position. Just as you need to be skeptical of trendy placements or ad methods, you must also be highly critical of conventional wisdom or old methods that are losing effectiveness.

“Because we always do it that way” is the worst possible excuse. New measurement technologies reveal many assumptions about ratings and viewing habits just aren’t true. As new technologies come online (e.g., the trend-watching, blog-surfing software offered by Umbria Communications), many old assumptions about our audiences may crumble even more.

Don’t become part of the noise.

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