Climbing the Slippery Slope of Advertising

First published June 6, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google’s Matt Cutts is warning advertisers not to try passing off “native ads” – or advertorials – as legit content. Apparently, the line between advertising and content continues to get blurrier. The reason is that advertisers are still trying to find an ad that works. And they have been for over 300 years.

The first newspaper ads, which seem to mark the dawn of advertising, appeared very early in the 18th century. Because they looked just like the articles surrounding them, they had to be labeled as an “Advertisement.” Sound familiar?

Now, wouldn’t you think that if you’ve been doing something for over 300 years, you would have figured it out? So why does most advertising still suck? Why are we still trying to find some magic formula that works.

We could attribute it to changing technologies, saying that advertising continues to evolve because the marketplace it operates in is in constant flux, along with the delivery channels it uses and the creative possibilities it offers. That would be what an “advertiser” would tell you.

The answer, I think, it a bit simpler than that.  It comes down to a three-century disconnect between the market and the marketers: marketers want advertising, the market doesn’t. At least, we don’t want advertising in the form that it usually takes. Advertisers have been tinkering for all that time to find something the public doesn’t reject outright.

Perhaps, as we often do in the Thursday Search Insider, we can find some clues in the etymology of the word. “Advertisement” comes from the French verb “avertir” – which means to give notice or, more ominously, warning. Ironically, the very word we use to label our industry came from roots that carry a negative connotation. To move it to a more positive light, we could say that the purpose of advertising is to make us aware of something we weren’t previously aware of. That seems rather benign. Helpful, even. And it would be accurate to say that the earliest ads aspired to this purpose.

But somewhere along the line, ads stepped over the line and became something we learned to hate. How did this happen?

Like many of the social issues that plague us today, the roots can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Technology enabled scale. Mass production became reality. And, to keep pace, advertising showed us its less benign side.

Prior to mass production, the output of a product was limited to the resources of a producer. Increasing quantity usually had an inverse impact on quality, which relied on the skills of a single craftsperson. One person could only produce so much. The first brands were introduced by these craftspeople to identify their products, differentiating them from inferior competitors.

But with mechanization and the introduction of the assembly line, suddenly scale became virtually unlimited. Uniform products could be produced by the trainload. Profits became tied to scale, and greed became tied to profit. From that point forward, the three moved in lock step.

It was at that point that advertising moved from being a helpful notice to an annoying plea to buy crap we don’t need. And that’s when advertisers had to learn to start pushing the public’s buttons, whether we wanted them pushed or not. Everything started to go off the rails early in the 20th century, and the wreckage really piled up with the introduction of mass communication. Suddenly, unlimited greed had an unlimited capacity to annoy us. Advertising couldn’t stop at informing. It had to start selling.

The twist in all this came right at the end of the “Century of Annoyance.”  In 1998, Goto.com introduced paid search (no, it wasn’t Google). It was an ad with one purpose, to make someone aware of something they weren’t previously aware of. And it was delivered in the perfect context. The market, in the form of a searcher, was looking to become more aware about something by seeking out new information. It gets even better. The searcher could decide whether or not to take the advertiser up on their offer by choosing to click or not.

Of course, with time, we advertisers will figure out a way to screw that up too. The good news, if you’re Matt Cutts, is that it means you’ll have a job for the foreseeable future.

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