Thought Leadership

Advertising Overload

How we got here and what we can do now

By and large, the American public has voiced a growing intolerance to the onslaught of advertising. Although research shows that Millenials are more accepting of advertising than older Americans (Nielsen), many have long considered it clutter and an unwelcome intrusion. 

The sheer volume of advertising conveys the scattershot approach entrenched in the industry. Even Facebook and Google acknowledge their users’ resistance to high volume, irrelevant promotional content and are changing their policies to ensure the integrity of organic content streams (iMedia Connection).

To better understand why Americans are pushing back and identify solutions, it helps to see how we got here. 

On the heels of the industrial revolution (mass production), businesses began to market their products and services to a larger audience. By the early 1900s, the advertising industry in the US was a fast-growing sector. In 1904 the first professional group of agencies and advertisers was formed. By 1915, Kellogg was already spending $1 million on advertising nationally (AdAge). 

The first sponsored radio show aired in 1923 (AdAge), setting the precedent for marketers to sponsor and even create content. By mid-century, my parents’ generation saw the widespread adoption of television. Advertising became the accepted trade-off (ads funded content) in radio and TV for the shows they loved: it was a transparent and mutual relationship. Newspapers were also funded in part by advertising.

Over the next few decades, the ad industry flourished in its many traditional formats —but broadcast TV commercials remained king. 

Despite new rules in the 1970s for children’s advertising, the overall trend was to loosen restrictions. In the 1980s there was an attempt to limit ads on TV, and although similar legislation was adopted in other countries, the regulation was determined illegal in the US. This ruling spiked the number of ads and ad time allowed during a TV program, and the trend has continued since.

By the late-1980s, cable TV became popular throughout the US. What many don’t remember is that one of the biggest selling points for winning viewers (customers) was that with this paid programming format, they wouldn’t have to endure all those commercials.

But the promise of profit overcame the will of the well-intentioned and cable networks started selling time to advertisers, overriding their original proposition. Not only did we start paying for content, but we also paid to view advertising. 

And then came digital. The advent of the Internet and resulting media convergence created even more fragmentation and a new universe of places and ways to advertise. Since nothing’s ever really free, monetization of the web was unavoidable and has since exploded into a massive industry. The estimated 2014 global digital ad spend was $137.53 billion (eMarketer) and it’s expected to only increase in the foreseeable future.

Now thanks to ad creep, just about anywhere we direct our attention (both on and off screen), we are greeted with an ad. There are few whitespaces of the mind left, which begs the question of whether there’s a better way to connect consumers with the products and services they seek. The short answer is—absolutely. The long, complex question that must be answered is “how?” 

The big data era promises the ability to precisely target consumers, but there’s a steep learning curve in wrangling all that data and working through valid consumer concerns about privacy. The learning curve is worth it, though, because I believe digital is the game changer that will enable the industry to significantly reduce clutter and still remain profitable.

With the digital media format (which is where all traditional media is playing now), we have the potential to match people with exactly what they seek. That is a powerful and appealing proposition that relies greatly on trust, mutual interest, and accurate targeting. Despite resistance on the part of consumers, they are still engaged and can be won back through ethical means and well-matched content. 

The digital age empowered consumers to renegotiate the arrangement; they are demanding a more relevant, mutual and transparent relationship. How marketers meet this challenge will determine if we remain in this scattershot, oversaturated era that is alienating consumers, or if we’ll enter a refined and elegant new advertising age where content and advertising are matched with interest. Let’s use this opportunity to better the profession and not just the bottom line.