COLUMN-It's an ad, ad, ad, ad world

by Reuters
Thursday, 13 March 2014 22:32 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

March 13 (Reuters) - The last place you'd expect to discover a map to navigate the future of the content-advertising landscape would be a book about the golden age of radio. But damn it all to hell, there it is on the concluding 12 pages of Cynthia B. Meyers' new book, "A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio."

Not to discourage you from reading Meyers' first 281 pages about the co-evolution of broadcasting and advertising before excavating her new media insights, but this is one of those books that demands to be read backwards - conclusion first, historical arguments and research later. In Meyers' view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future's corner.

The commercial Web that permeates our culture today was revolutionary because it allowed news and entertainment content to migrate from the lockdown of the radio and TV networks, as well as from print. But that migration was already in progress when the first banner ad (for AT&T) ran on in late 1994. A decade before, cable had given advertisers new venues to place their TV bets, and VCRs (and later DVRs) gave viewers the power to time-shift and edit ads out of their consumption. The advent of videotape and discs further liberated audiences from advertising's hold.

The break-up of the old three TV networks hegemony was accelerated by the emergence of digitized online distribution platforms for news and entertainment. Audiences - once prisoners of their living rooms - could now partake of the media menu anywhere they toted a mobile device.

Always nimble in the face of change, advertisers coped with the transitions by doing more of what they were doing in the first place. They purchased ad-space near the very most popular content (Super Bowl, Olympics, top-rated shows) to maximize each ad's reach and also placed more of their ads near specialized content (travel, cars, beauty, fashion, home and design, food, finance, sports) where the ad message might more predictably be turned into a purchase. Where airtime turned cheap, advertisers created infomercials, those deceptive ads clothed in the video grammar of news or entertainment. As new platforms like the Web and mobile arrived, advertisers adjusted their pitches accordingly.

The increasing ability of the audience to avoid ads - even block them on the Web - has pressed some advertisers to purchase space near the audience's "intent" to make a purchase, such as Web pages served by Google and Bing in response to such search queries as "cheap flights to Los Angeles" and "vintage Howdy Doody dolls." As search engines learn more about you, they reliably serve ads for things you only half-knew you wanted.

Other advertisers have sought to nullify ad-avoidance by fusing their messages directly into content - essentially creating ads that can't be avoided. Known within the industry by such euphemisms as "sponsored content," "native advertising," "content marketing" and "branded content," they have now been embraced by nearly all Web publishers, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

But these newfangled advertorials have multiple antecedents in media history. This bastard form was so pervasive in late nineteenth-century newspapers that the journalist Charles A. Dana campaigned against them: "Let every advertisement appear as an advertisement; no sailing under false colors." At the turn of the century came such advertorials as the Michelin Guides and Jell-O recipe books, which encouraged the purchase of a product by providing a playbook for its consumption. Later came the oblique integration of advertising into entertainment, as radio and TV shows named themselves after their sponsors (Kraft Music Hall and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre) or they subtly placed products, such as cars and other goods, into the stories of programs in exchange for money.

In recent months, Madison Avenue's ambitions to integrate advertising into content more deeply than mere sponsored content running alongside editorial has gathered speed, as these Ad Age and New York Times pieces from December indicate. "The goal is to transform prosaic product advertising, which consumers can now easily avoid or ignore, into compelling content they deem informative or entertaining," the Times reported late last year.

"There is a furor on the buy side," Forbes chief executive officer Mike Perlis told Ad Age last year. "The buyers are all asking for sponsored content." What the buyers want is advertising content that stands independent of any buttressing by a publication, a Web site or a show. By doing so, they hope to disintermediate the old - and now destabilized - business model in which journalists and song-and-dance-men attracted the audience and then sold it off to ad-men who constructed the corporations' commercial pitches. In this new world that advertisers and their clients envision, the message won't interrupt the news and entertainment - it will be the news and entertainment. Eyes won't avoid it because from the ground up, it will be designed to grab and hold them.

As Meyers' history reveals, the struggle between advertisers and news-entertainment creators is a longitudinal one, with dominance tipping back and forth. What the Web affords the advertising industrial complex is the same thing it affords aspiring content creators - an unlimited frontier on which they can stake their flags without asking anybody's permission. Reading Meyers, you begin to appreciate how fluid the advertising business is, sometimes demanding complete control from networks and publishers, sometimes retreating from the public eye to avoid associating itself with the networks or entertainers who might embarrass the corporate client. The advertising industry's flexibility and willingness to experiment with media forms makes Meyers predict that it will find a way to turn the current media turmoil to its benefit.

I'm no media purist. Like Meyers, I appreciate that advertising has never stood outside news creation. Without advertising, the daily newspaper, the news broadcast, the news magazine and news on the Web would scarcely exist. One of the things that has prevented advertisers and their clients from controlling the whole ball of wax in the past has been the sheer capital costs of building out a newspaper - its presses, circulation, ad sales, news collection, etc. But the affordability of Web, which has benefited such new entrants as Gawker, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Vox and the rest, will also benefit advertisers and their clients. If the advertising industrial complex masters editorial creation in a future media season - becoming such a big dog that it needs no tail to wag - old news hands might come to regard the era in which gobs of sponsored content propped up ailing news properties as "the good old days."

"Advertising, like any 'culture industry' or 'media industry,' is in the business of converting audience attention into profit," Meyers writes. The battle royale for media supremacy will soon be engaged. But rather than pit old media against new, or even BuzzFeed vs. Gawker, it will pit the sharpies of the advertising industry - who know more about attention and profit than us all - against everybody else. (Jack Shafer)

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