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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The No Advertising Fallacy

Adbusters. No Logo.

Buy Nothing Day.

Various guilt-ridden middle class people doing their best to march in solidarity with imaginary downtrodden, non-materialistic brothers and sisters, say the darndest things about brands, advertising, and when you come right down to it, the joy of shopping for, thinking about, and buying, stuff.

A typical gambit in their mission statements reads like something out of a formal revolutionary theory paper: "reduction in all (x, y, or z) to zero." So, reducing "all advertising to zero," along with reducing all exploitation to zero, all poverty to zero, tuition fees to zero, all greenhouse emissions to zero (well actually, I've never heard anyone say that), etc. And those are the nice examples. Bad examples, needless to say, might entail ethnic cleansing, enforced codes of thought, or being forced to settle for last year's handbag.

In social and political thought circles this can be nicely called "utopianism," but the habit of thought is called "reductionist." It's also tempting to render it as "totalitarian." When you remove a whole cultural or economic layer because it somehow seems superfluous to an elegantly-designed system, chances are you're forgetting that freedom, economic incentives, and cultural pluralism (that sometimes create messy things like being interrupted, the need to borrow for an education, etc.) are pretty acceptable messes in contrast with the alternative.

So how does an otherwise smart guy like Jerry Neumann, an "investor in marketing companies" with a quietly efficient blog called Reaction Wheel, come out with:

"Someday, somebody will discover a way to do away with advertising altogether, reducing that particular cost of transacting to zero. That company will be bigger than Google."

Well, one interesting distinction is that unlike the poshly-housed "anti brand warriors," he doesn't lament too much advertising as a blight on humanity or an assault on our right to peace and quiet (arguably you might say, too much of it indeed is). He's concerned that it is wasteful, from an economic standpoint. There's very little doubt about that, but this may be more of an empirical question of how to find customers and grow your company in a wide variety of industries, through a wide variety of methods. "Reducing all advertising to zero" is a pretty blunt way of expressing that.

Because he seems to work with a lot of smart people, and maintains a keen interest in ad exchanges and the like, I can only assume that Neumann's formulaic statement was a mental glitch, or maybe part of the vernacular of venture capitalists, who like to make vast, sweeping statements about revolutionary business models and technologies, many of them connected to efficiency, pricing models, etc.

Efficiency at what? Giving people what they "already want"? That's a sliver of our task. And I love that quest. Reducing friction in fulfilling demand is a big part of what my company helps companies do when someone searches for "organic quinoa" on Google.

BUT...

We live in a culture. "Already want" is supplemented by an incredible amount of "hey, by the way, I think you might really really want...," and "did you see the great episode of...?"

Neumann's post was called Eliminate Advertising. For a mature executive not toting a can of spray paint, that's pretty childlike. I guess the purpose is just to get attention. It's valuable, after all! And in an attention economy, can you logically even conceive of no advertising? Not even remotely.

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