Branding in the Post Truth Age

If 2016 was nothing else – it was a watershed year for the concept of branding. In the previous 12 months, we saw a decoupling in the two elements we have always believed make up brands. As fellow Spinner Cory Treffiletti said recently:

“You have to satisfy the emotional quotient as well as the logical quotient for your brand.  If not, then your brand isn’t balanced, and is likely to fall flat on its face.”

But another Mediapost article highlighted an interesting trend in branding:

“Brands will strive to be ‘meticulously un-designed’ in 2017, according to WPP brand agency Brand Union.”

This, I believe, speaks to where brands are going. And depending on which side of the agency desk you happen to be on, this could either be good news or downright disheartening.

Let’s start with the logical side of branding. In their book Absolute Value, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen sounded the death knell for brands as a proxy for consumer information. Their premise, which I agree with, is that in a market that is increasingly moving towards perfect information, brands have lost their position of trust. We would rather rely on information that comes from non-marketing sources.

But brands have been aspiring to transcend their logical side for at least 5 decades now. This is the emotional side of branding that Treffiletti speaks of. And here I have to disagree with Simonson and Rosen. This form of branding appears to be very much alive and well, thank you. In fact, in the past year, this form of branding has upped the game considerably.

Brands, at their most potent, embed themselves in our belief systems. It is here, close to our emotional hearts, which mark the Promised Land for brands. Reid Montague’s famous Coke neuro-imaging experiment showed that for Coke drinkers, the brand became part of who they are. Research I was involved in showed that favored brands are positively responded to in a split second, far faster than the rational brain can act. We are hardwired to believe in brands and the more loved the brand, the stronger the reaction. So let’s look at beliefs for a moment.

Not all beliefs are created equal. Our beliefs have an emotional valence – some beliefs are defended more strongly than others. There is a hierarchy of belief defense. At the highest level are our Core beliefs; how we feel about things like politics and religion. Brands are trying to intrude on this core belief space. There has been no better example of this than the brand of Donald Trump.

Beliefs are funny things. From an evolutionary perspective, they’re valuable. They’re mental shortcuts that guide our actions without requiring us to think. They are a type of emotional auto-pilot. But they can also be quite dangerous for the same reason. We defend our beliefs against skeptics – and we defend our core beliefs most vigorously. Ration has nothing to do with it. It is this type of defense system that brands would love to build around themselves.

We like to believe our beliefs are unique to us – but in actual fact, beliefs also materialize out of our social connections. If enough people in our social network believe something is true, so will we. We will even create false memories and narratives to support the fiction. The evolutionary logic is quite simple. Tribes have better odds for survival than individuals, and our tribe will be more successful if we all think the same way about certain things. Beliefs create tribal cohesion.

So, the question is – how does a brand become a belief? It’s this question that possibly points the way in which brands will evolve in the Post-Truth future.

Up to now, brands have always been unilaterally “manufactured” – carefully crafted by agencies as a distillation of marketing messages and delivered to an audience. But now, brands are multilaterally “emergent” – formed through a network of socially connected interactions. All brands are now trying to ride the amplified waves of social media. This means they have to be “meme-worthy” – which really means they have to be both note and share-worthy. To become more amplifiable, brands will become more “jagged,” trying to act as catalysts for going viral. Branding messages will naturally evolve towards outlier extremes in their quest to be noticed and interacted with. Brands are aspiring to become “brain-worms” – wait, that’s not quite right – brands are becoming “belief-worms,” slipping past the rational brain if at all possible to lodge themselves directly in our belief systems. Brands want to be emotional shorthand notations that resonate with our most deeply held core beliefs. We have constructed a narrative of who we are and brands that fit that narrative are adopted and amplified.

It’s this version of branding that seems to be where we’re headed – a socially infectious virus that creates it’s own version of the truth and builds a bulwark of belief to defend itself. Increasingly, branding has nothing to do with rational thought or a quest for absolute value.

Back to the Coffee House: Has Journalism Gone Full Circle?

First, let’s consider two facts about Facebook that ran in Mediapost in the last two weeks. The first:

“A full 65% of people find their next destination through friends and family on Facebook.”

Let’s take this out of the context of just looking for your next travel destination. Let’s think about it in terms of a risky decision. Choosing somewhere to go on a vacation is a big decision. There’s a lot riding on it. Other than the expense, there’s also your personal experience. The fact that 2 out of 3 people chose Facebook as the platform upon which to make that decision is rather amazing when you think about it. It shows just how pervasive and influential Facebook as become.

Now, the next fact:

“Facebook users are two-and-a-half times more likely to read fake news fed through the social network than news from reputable news publishers.”

There’s really no reason to elaborate on the above – ‘nuff said. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has emerged at the dominant public space in our lives. It is perhaps the most important platform in our culture today for forming beliefs and opinions.

Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but not matter what you may have said in the past about not being a media outlet, you can’t duck this responsibility. If our public opinions are formed on your private property that is a unimaginably powerful platform then – as Spidey’s Uncle Ben said (or the French National Convention of 1793; depending on whom you’re prefer to quote as a source) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you provide a platform and an audience to news providers – fake or real, you are, ipso facto, a media outlet.

But Facebook is more than just an outlet. It is also the forum where news is digested and shared. It is both a gristmill and a cauldron where beliefs are formed and opinions expressed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, although the previous occurrence was in a different time and a very different place. It actually contributed directly to the birth of modern journalism – which is, ironically – under threat from this latest evolution of news.

If you were an average citizen London in 1700 your sources for news were limited. First of all, there was a very good chance that you were illiterate, so reading the news wasn’t an option. The official channel for the news of the realm was royal proclamations read out by town criers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much news as whatever the ruling monarch felt like proclaiming.

There was another reality of life in London – if you drank the water it could possibly kill you. You could drink beer in a pub – which most did – or if you preferred to stay sober you could drink coffee. Starting in the mid 1600’s coffee houses started to pop up all over London. It wasn’t the quality of the coffee that made these public spaces all the rage. It was the forum they provided for the sharing of news. Each new arrival was greeted with, “Your servant, sir. What news have you?” Pamphlets, journals, broadsheets and newsletters from independent (a.k.a “non-royal”) publishers were read aloud, digested and debated. Given the class-bound society of London, coffee houses were remarkably democratic. “Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,” proclaimed the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House (1674), “but take the next fit seat he can find.” Lords, fishmongers, baronets, barristers, butchers and shoe-blacks could and did all share the same table. The coffee houses of London made a huge contribution to our current notion of media as a public trust, with all that entails.

In a 2011 article the Economist made the same parallel between coffee houses and digitally mediated news. In it, they foreshadowed a dramatic shift in our concept of news:

“The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

The last line was prescient. Seismic disruption has fundamentally torn the political and societal landscape asunder. But I have a different take on the “discursive ethos” of news consumption. I assume the Economist used this phrase to mean a verbal interchange of thought related to the news. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. There is no thought and there is little discourse. The share button is hit before there is any chance to digest the news, let alone vet it for accuracy. This is a much different atmosphere of the coffee house. There is a dynamic that happens when our beliefs are called on the mat in a public forum. It is here where beliefs may be altered but they can never change in a vacuum. The coffee house provided the ideal forum for the challenging of beliefs. As mentioned, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous forum in all of England at the time. Most of all it was an atmosphere infused with physicality and human interaction – a melting pot of somatic feedback. Debate was civil but passionate. There was a dynamic totally missing from it’s online equivalent. The rules and realities of the 18th century coffee house forced thoughtfulness and diverse perspectives upon the discourse. Facebook allows you to do an end run around it as you hit your share button.

The Calcification of a Columnist

First: the Caveat. I’m old and grumpy. That is self-evident. There is no need to remind me.

But even with this truth established, the fact is that I’ve noticed a trend. Increasingly, when I come to write this column, I get depressed. The more I look for a topic to write about, the more my mood spirals downward.

I’ve been writing for Mediapost for over 12 years now. Together, between the Search Insider and Online Spin, that’s close to 600 columns. Many – if not most – of those have been focused on the intersection between technology and human behavior. I’m fascinated by what happens when evolved instincts meet technological disruption.

When I started this gig I was mostly optimistic. I was amazed by the possibilities and – somewhat naively it turns out – believed it would make us better. Unlimited access to information, the ability to connect with anyone – anywhere, new ways to reach beyond the limits of our own DNA; how could this not make humans amazing?

Why, then, do we seem to be going backwards? What I didn’t realize at the time is that technology is like a magnifying glass. Yes, it can make the good of human nature better, but it can also make the bad worse. Not only that, but Technology also has a nasty habit of throwing in unintended consequences; little gotchas we never saw coming that have massive moral implications. Disruption can be a good thing, but it can also rip things apart in a thrice that took centuries of careful and thoughtful building to put in place. Black Swans have little regard for ethics or morality.

I have always said that technology doesn’t change behaviors. It enables behaviors. When it comes to the things that matter, our innate instincts and beliefs, we are not perceptibly different than our distant ancestors were. We are driven by the same drives. Increasingly, as I look at how we use the outcomes of science and innovation to pursue these objectives, I realize that while it can enable love, courage and compassion, technology can also engender more hate, racism and misogyny. It makes us better while it also makes us worse. We are becoming caricatures of ourselves.


Everett Rogers, 1962

Everett Rogers plotted the diffusion of technology through the masses on a bell curve and divided us up into innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The categorization was defined by our acceptance of innovation. Inevitably, then, there would be a correlation between that acceptance and our sense of optimism about the possibilities of technology. Early adopters would naturally see how technology would enable us to be better. But, as diffusion rolls through the curve we would eventually hit those for which technology is just there – another entitlement, a factor of our environment, oxygen. There is no special magic or promise here. Technology simply is.

So, to recap, I’m old and grumpy. As I started to write yet another column I was submerged in a wave of weariness.   I have to admit – I have been emotionally beat up by the last few years. I’m tired of writing about how technology is making us stupider, lazier and less tolerant when it should be making us great.

But another thing usually comes with age: perspective. This isn’t the first time that humans and disruptive technology have crossed paths. That’s been the story of our existence. Perhaps we should zoom out a bit from our current situation. Let’s set aside for a moment our navel gazing about fake news, click bait, viral hatred, connected xenophobia and erosion of public trusts. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

History isn’t sketched in straight lines. History is plotted on a curve. Correction. History is plotted in a series of waves. We are constantly correcting course. Disruption tends to swing a pendulum one way until a gathering of opposing force swings it the other way. It takes us awhile to absorb disruption, but we do – eventually.

I suspect if I were writing this in 1785 I’d be disheartened by the industrial blight that was enveloping the world. Then, like now, technology was plotting a new course for us. But in this case, we have the advantage of hindsight to put things in perspective. Consider this one fact: between 1200 and 1600 the life span of a British noble didn’t go up by even a single year. But, between 1800 and today, life expectancy for white males in the West doubled from thirty eight years to seventy six. Technology made that possible.

stevenpinker2Technology, when viewed on a longer timeline, has also made us better. If you doubt that, read psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” His exhaustively researched and reasoned book leads you to the inescapable conclusion that we are better now than we ever have been. We are less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than at any time in history. Technology also made that possible.

It’s okay to be frustrated by the squandering of the promise of technology. But it’s not okay to just shrug and move on. You are the opposing force that can cause the pendulum to change direction. Because, in the end, it’s not technology that makes us better. It’s how we choose to use that technology.




The Mindful Democracy Manifesto


The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

Call it the Frog in Boiling Water Syndrome. It happens when creeping changes in our environment reach a disruptive tipping point that triggers massive change – or – sometimes – a dead frog. I think we’re going through one such scenario now. In this case, the boiling water may be technology and the frog may be democracy.

As I said in Online Spin last week, the network effects of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory may be yet another unintended consequence of technology.

I walked through the dynamics I believe lay behind the election last week in some detail. This week, I want to focus more on the impact of technology on democratic elections in general. In particular, I wanted to explore the network effects of technology, the spread of information and sweeping populist movements like we saw on November 8th.

In an ideal world, access to information should be the bedrock of effective democracy. Ironically, however, now that we have more access than ever that bedrock is being chipped away. There has been a lot of finger pointing at the dissemination of fake news on Facebook, but that’s just symptomatic of a bigger ill. The real problem is the filter bubbles and echo chambers that formed on social networks. And they formed because friction has been eliminated. The way we were informed in this election looked very different from that in elections past.

Information is now spread more through emergent social networks than through editorially controlled media channels. That makes it subject to unintended network effects. Because the friction of central control has been largely eliminated, the spread of information relies on the rules of emergence: the aggregated and amplified behaviors of the individual agents.

When it comes to predicting behaviors of individual human agents, our best bet is placed on the innate behaviors that lie below the threshold of rational thought. Up to now, social conformity was a huge factor. And that rallying point of that social conformity was largely formed and defined by information coming from the mainstream media. The trend of that information over the past several decades has been to the left end of the ideological spectrum. Political correctness is one clear example of this evolving trend.

But in this past election, there was a shift in individual behavior thanks to the elimination of friction in the spread of information – away from social conformity and towards other primal behaviors. Xenophobia is one such behavior. Much as some of us hate to admit it, we’re all xenophobic to some degree. Humans naturally choose familiar over foreign. It’s an evolved survival trait. And, as American economist Thomas Schelling showed in 1971, it doesn’t take a very high degree of xenophobia to lead to significant segregation. He showed that even people who only have a mild preference to be with people like themselves (about 33%) would, given the ability to move wherever they wished, lead to highly segregated neighborhoods. Imagine then the segregation that happens when friction is essentially removed from social networks. You don’t have to be a racist to want to be with people who agree with you. Liberals are definitely guilty of the same bias.

What happened in the election of 2016 were the final death throes of the mythical Homo Politicus – the fiction of the rational voter. Just like Homo Economicus – who predeceased him/her thanks to the ground breaking work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – much as we might believe we make rational voting choices, we are all a primal basket of cognitive biases. And these biases were fed a steady stream of misinformation and questionable factoids thanks to our homogenized social connections.

This was not just a right wing trend. The left was equally guilty. Emergent networks formed and headed in diametrically opposed directions. In the middle, unfortunately, was the future of the country and – perhaps – democracy. Because, with the elimination of information distributional friction, we have to ask the question, “What will democracy become?” I have an idea, but I’ll warn you, it’s not a particularly attractive one.

If we look at democracy in the context of an emergent network, we can reasonably predict a few things. If the behaviors of the individual agents are not uniform – if half always turn left and half always turn right – that dynamic tension will set up an oscillation. The network will go through opposing phases. The higher the tension, the bigger the amplitude and the more rapid the frequency of those oscillations. The country will continually veer right and then veer left.

Because those voting decisions are driven more by primal reactions than rational thought, votes will become less about the optimal future of the country and more about revenge on the winner of the previous election. As the elimination of friction in information distribution accelerates, we will increasingly be subject to the threshold mob effect I described in my last column.

So, is democracy dead? Perhaps. At a minimum, it is debilitated. At the beginning of the column, I quoted Winston Churchill. Here is another quote from Churchill:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

We are incredibly reluctant to toy with the idea of democracy. It is perhaps the most cherished ideal we cling to in the Western World. But if democracy is the mechanism for a never-ending oscillation of retribution, perhaps we should be brave enough to consider alternatives. In that spirit, I put forward the following:

Mindful Democracy.

The best antidote to irrationality is mindfulness – forcing our Prefrontal cortex to kick in and lift us above our primal urges. But how do we encourage mindfulness in a democratic context? How do we break out of our social filter bubbles and echo chambers?

What if we made the right to vote contingent on awareness? What if you had to take a test before you cast your vote? The objective of the test is simple: how aware were you not only of your candidate’s position and policies but – more importantly – that of the other side? You don’t have to agree with the other side’s position; you just have to be aware of it. Your awareness score would then be assigned as a weight to your vote. The higher your level of awareness, the more your vote would count.

I know I’m tiptoeing on the edge of sacrilege here, but consider it a straw man. I’ve been hesitating in going public with this, but I’ve been thinking about it for some time and I’m not so sure it’s worse than the increasingly shaky democratic status quo we currently have. It’s equally fair to the right and left. It encourages mindfulness. It breaks down echo chambers.

It’s worth thinking about.

Mobs, Filter Bubbles and Democracy

You know I love to ask “why”? And last Tuesday provided me with the mother of all “whys”. I know there will be a lot of digital ink shed on this – but I just can’t help myself.


Eight years ago, on Mediapost, I wrote that we had seen a new type of democracy. I still think I was right. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just seen one side of a more complex phenomenon. Tuesday we saw another side. And we’re still reeling from it.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this. Trump’s ascendancy is following the same playbook as Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s right winged attack in France and Rodrigo Duterte’s recent win for the presidency of the Philippines. Behind all these things, there are a few factors at play. Together, they combine to create a new social phenomenon. And, when combined with traditional democratic vehicles, they can cause bad things to happen to good people.

The FYF (F*&k You Factor)

Michael Moore absolutely nailed what happened Tuesday night, even providing a state-by-state, vote-by-vote breakdown of what went down – but he did it back in July. And he did it because he and Trump are both masters of the FYF. Just like you can’t bullshit a bullshitter – you can’t propagandize a propagandist. Trump had borrowed a page out of Moore’s playbook and Moore could see it coming a mile away.

The FYF requires two things – fear and anger. Anger comes from the fear. Typically, it’s fear of – and anger about – something you feel is beyond your control. This inevitably leads to a need to blame someone or something. The FYF master first creates the enemy, and then gives you a way to say FY to them. In Moore’s words, “The Outsider, Donald Trump, has arrived to clean house! You don’t have to agree with him! You don’t even have to like him! He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you!”

What Michael Moore knew – and what the rest of us would figure out too late – was that for half the US, this wasn’t a vote for president. This was a vote for destruction. The more outrageous that Trump seemed, the more destructive he would be. Whether it was intentional or note, Trump’s genius was in turning Clinton’s competence into a liability. He succeeded in turning this into a simple yes or no choice – vote for the Washington you know – and hate – or blow it up.

The Threshold Factor

The FYF provides the core – the power base. Trump’s core was angry white men. But then you have to extend beyond this core. That’s where mob mentality comes in.

In 1978, Mark Granovetter wrote a landmark paper on threshold models of behavior. I’ll summarize. Let’s say you have two choices of behavior. One is to adhere to social and behavioral norms. Let’s call this the status quo option. The other is to do something you wouldn’t normally do, like defy your government – let’s call this the F*&k You option. Which option you choose is based on a risk/reward calculation.

What Granovetter realized is that predicting the behavior of a group isn’t a binary model – it’s a spectrum. In any group of people, you are going to have a range of risk/reward thresholds to get over to go from one behavioral alternative to the other. Being social animals, Granovetter theorized the deciding factor was the number of other people we need to see who are also willing to choose option 2 – saying F*&k you. The more people willing to make that choice, the lower the risk that you’ll be singled out for your behavior. Some people don’t need anyone – they are the instigators. Let’s give them a “0”. Other people may never join the mob mentality, even if everyone else is. We’ll give them a “100.” In between you have all the rest, ranging from 1 to 99.

The instigators start the reaction. Depending on the distribution of thresholds, if there are enough 1, 2, 3’s and so forth, the bandwagon effect happens quickly, spreading through the group. It isn’t until you hit a threshold gap that the chain reaction stops. For example, if you have a small group of 1’s, 2’s and 3’s, but the next lowest threshold is 10, the movement may be stopped in its tracks.

Network Effects and Filter Bubbles

None of what I’ve described so far is new. People have always been angry and mobs have always formed. What is new, however, is the nature of this particular mob.

As you probably deduced, the threshold model is one of network effects. It depends on finding others who share similar views. It you can aggregate a critical mass of low thresholds; you can trigger bigger bandwagon effects – maybe even big enough to jump threshold gaps.

Up to now, Granovetter’s Threshold model was constrained by geography. You had to have enough low threshold people in physical space to start the chain reaction. But we live in a different world. Now, you can have a groups of 0s, 1s and 2s living in Spokane, Washington, Pickensville, Alabama, and Marianna, Florida and they can all be connected online. When this happens, we have a new phenomenon – the Filter Bubble.

One thing we learned this election was how effective filter bubbles were. I have a little over 440 connections in Facebook. In the months and weeks leading up to the election, I saw almost no support for Trump in my feed. I agreed ideologically with the posts of almost everyone in my network. I suspect I’m not alone. I am sure Trump supporters had equally homogeneous feedback from their respective networks. This put us in what we call a filter bubble. In the geographically unrestricted network of online connections, our network nodes tend to be rather homogeneous ideologically.

Think about what this does to Granovetter’s threshold model. We fall into the false illusion that everyone thinks the same way we do. This reduces threshold gaps and accelerates momentum for non-typical options. It tips the balance away from risk and towards reward.

A New Face of Democracy

I believe these three factors set the stage for Donald Trump. I also believe they are threatening to turn democracy into never ending cycle of left vs. right backlashes. I want to explore this some more, but given that I’ve already egregiously exceeded my typical word count for Online Spin, we’ll have to pick up the thread next week.

Prospect Theory, Back Burners and Relationship Risk

What does relationship infidelity and consumer behavior have in common? Both are changing, thanks to technology – or, more specifically – the intersection between technology and our brains. And for you regular readers, you know that stuff is right in my wheelhouse.


Dr. Michelle Drouin

So I was fascinated by a recent presentation given by Dr. Michelle Drouin from Purdue University. She talked about how connected technologies are impacting the way we think about relationship investment.

The idea of “investing” in a relationship probably paints in a less romantic light then we typically think of, but it’s an accurate description. We calculate odds and evaluate risk. It’s what we do. Now, in the case of love, an admittedly heuristic process becomes even less rational. Our subliminal risk appraisal system is subjugated by a volatile cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters. But – at the end of the day – we calculate odds.

If you take all this into account, Dr. Drouin’s research into “back burners” becomes fascinating, if not all that surprising. In the paper, back burners are defined as “a desired potential or continuing romantic/sexual partner with whom one communicates, but to whom one is not exclusively committed.” “Back burners” are our fall back bets when it comes to relationships or sexual liaisons. And they’re not exclusive to single people. People in committed relationships also keep a stable of “back burners.” Women keep an average of 4 potential “relationship” candidates from their entire list of contacts and 8 potential “liaison” candidates. Men, predictably, keep more options open. Male participants in the study reported an average of over 8 “relationship” options and 26 liaison “back burners.” Drouin’s hypothesis is that this number has recently jumped thanks to technology, especially with the connectivity offered through social media. We’re keeping more “back burners” because we can.

What does this have to do with advertising? The point I’m making is that this behavior is not unique. Humans treat pretty much everything like an open marketplace. We are constantly balancing risk and reward amongst all the options that are open to us, subconsciously calculating the odds. It’s called Prospect Theory. And, thanks to technology, that market is much larger than it’s ever been before. In this new world, our brain has become a Vegas odds maker on steroids.

In Drouin’s research, it appears that new technologies like Tinder, What’sapp and Facebook have had a huge impact on how we view relationships. Our fidelity balance has been tipped to the negative. Because we have more alternatives – and it’s easier to stay connected with those alternatives and keep them on the “back burner” – the odds are worth keeping our options open. Monogamy may not be our best bet anymore. Facebook is cited in one-third of all divorce cases in the U.K. And in Italy, evidence from the social messaging app What’sapp shows up in nearly half of the divorce proceedings.

So, it appears that humans are loyal – until a better offer with a degree of risk we can live with comes along.

This brings us back to our behaviors in the consumer world. It’s the same mental process, applied in a different environment. In this environment, relationships are defined as brand loyalty. And, as Emanuel Rosen and Itamar Simonson show in their book Absolute Value, we are increasingly keeping our options open in more and more consumer decisions. When it comes to buying stuff – even if we have brand loyalty – we are increasingly aware of the “back burners” available to us.




Sorry Folks – Blame it on Ed

Just when you thought it was safe to assume I’d be moving on to another topic, I’m back. Blame it on Ed Papazian, who commented on last week’s column about the Rise of the Audience marketplace. I’ll respond to his comment in multiple parts. First, he said:

“I think it’s fine to speculate on “audience” based advertising, by which you actually mean using digital, not traditional media, as the basis for the advertising of the future.”

All media is going to be digital. Our concept of “traditional” media is well down its death spiral. We’re less then a decade away from all media being delivered through a digital platform that would allow for real time targeting of advertising. True, we have to move beyond the current paradigm of mass distributed, channel restricted advertising we seem stuck in, but the technology is already there. We (by which I mean the ad industry) just have to catch up. Ed continues in this vein:

“However, in a practical sense, not only is this, as yet, merely a dream for TV, radio and print media, but it is also an oversimplification.”

Is it an oversimplification? Let’s remember that more and more of our media consumption is becoming trackable from both ends. We no longer have to track from the point of distribution. Tracking is also possible at the point of consumption. We are living with devices that increasingly have insight into what we’re doing at any moment of the day. It’s just a matter of us giving permission to be served relevant, well targeted ads based on the context of our lives.

But what would entice us to give this permission? Ed goes on to say that…

“Even if a digital advertiser could actually identify every consumer in the U.S. who is interested—or “in the market” for what his ads are trying to sell and also how they are pitching the product/service—and send only these people “audience targeted ads”, many of the ads will still not be of interest…”

Papazian proposed an acid test of sorts (or, more appropriately – an antacid test):

“Why? Because they are for unpleasant or mundane products—toilet bowel cleansers, upset stomach remedies, etc.—-or because the ads are pitching a brand the consumer doesn’t like or has had a bad experience with.”

Okay, let me take up the challenge that Ed has thrown down (or up?). Are ads for stomach remedies always unwanted? Not if I have a history of heartburn, especially when my willpower drops and my diet changes as I’m travelling. Let’s take it one step further. I’ve made a dinner reservation for 7 pm at my favorite Indian food restaurant while I’m in San Francisco. It’s 2 pm. I’ve just polished off a Molinari’s sandwich and I’m heading back to my hotel. As I turn the corner at O’Farrell and Powell, an instant coupon is delivered to my phone with 50% off a new antacid tablet at the Walgreen’s ahead, together with the message: “Prosciutto, pepperoncinis and pakoras in the same day? Look at you go! But just in case…”

The world Ed talks about does have a lot of unwanted advertising. But in the world I’m envisioning, where audiences are precisely targeted, we will hopefully eliminate most of those unwanted ads. Those ads are the by-product of the huge inefficiencies in the current advertising marketplace. And it’s this inefficiency that is rapidly destroying advertising as we know it from both ends. The current market is built on showing largely ineffective ads to mainly disinterested prospects – hoping there is an anomaly in there somewhere – and charging the advertiser to do so. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable plan to me.

When I talk about selecting audiences in a market, it’s this level of specificity that I’m talking about. There is nothing in the above scenario that’s beyond the reach of current Mar-Tech. Perhaps it’s oversimplified. But I did that to make a point. In paid search, we used to have a saying, “buy your best clicks first”. It meant starting with the obviously relevant keywords – the people who were definitely looking for you. The problem was that there just wasn’t enough volume on these “sure-bet” keywords alone. But as digital has matured, the amount of “sure-bet” inventory has increased. We’re still not all the way there – where we can rely on sure-bet inventory alone – but we’re getting closer. The audience marketplace I’m envisioning gets us much of the way there. When technology and data allow us to assemble carefully segmented audiences with a high likelihood of successful engagement on the fly, we eliminate the inefficiencies in the market.

I truly believe that it’s time to discard the jury-rigged, heavily bandaged and limping behemoth that advertising has become and start thinking about this in an entirely new way. Papazian’s last sentence in his comment was…

“You just can’t get around the fact that many ads are going to be unwanted, no matter how they are targeted….”

Do we have to accept that as our future? It’s certainly the present, but I would hate to think we can’t reach any higher. The first step is to stop accepting advertising the way we know it as the status quo. We’ll be unable to imagine tomorrow if we’re still bound by the limitations of today.