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Marketing Ate Our Culture -- But It Doesn't Have To

What happens when the Great Unwritten Contract between advertisers and the public is fractured?
 
 
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Editor's Note: Terry O'Reilly is the author, with Mike Tennant, of the book The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture, from Random House Books. The essay that follows was written for AlterNet and based off that book.

What if I told you that you should be watching more commercials? Yes, I’m an adman. And yes, you’d expect me to say that. But you just might have a moral obligation to watch more commercials. Let me explain.

A few decades back, Texan Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson gazed down the highway and didn’t like what she saw. Billboards blocked her view of the plains, of the distant hills, and of her beloved wildflowers. So she complained to her husband. He had a fairly influential job. He was President of the United States. Like all good husbands, Lyndon Baines Johnson knew what was good for him, and prompted Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act, which placed limits on the spread of posters - or billboards as they’re popularly known -- and preserved the views that Ladybird Johnson loved so much.

The new restrictions drew rave reviews, particularly from one British ex-pat, who later wrote: "As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?"
 

It’s a remarkable manifesto considering its author is the legendary advertising mogul David Ogilvy, he of Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency fame. Throughout his career, he railed at large outdoor posters, even though his advertising agency created hundreds, if not thousands, of them for their various blue-chip clients.

Let’s stick a bookmark in here for a moment, and go back in time a bit further. At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most powerful advertising agencies in America was Lord & Thomas, headed by the most influential, albeit most forgotten adman ever to stride purposefully down Madison Avenue (even though he was based in Chicago, but stay with me). Inspired one day by Canadian copywriter John E. Kennedy’s famous insight that advertising really was “salesmanship on paper” and not just “news,” Lasker took that seemingly obvious tidbit and built Lord & Thomas into one of the world’s largest advertising empires. 

Radio was just coming out of its wrapping back then, and Lasker initially paid little attention to the medium as it struggled for the economic model that would sustain it. What he couldn’t ignore, however, was the success of radio advertising pioneers such as Bernard Gimbel, of Gimbel’s department stores and Saks Fifth Avenue. Even harder to ignore was Lasker’s client David Sarnoff of RCA, who was also happened to be the founder of the NBC radio network in 1926. Eventually, Lasker decided to experiment with radio advertising and asked his New York office to create a program based on some sort of Broadway entertainment as a vehicle for Palmolive.

Meanwhile, NBC president Merlin Aylesworth didn’t believe in radio advertising as you hear it today, but preferred that sponsors (a word not yet invented in the late twenties) be mentioned before and after a program with a passing phrase like, “The following program comes to you through the courtesy of Lucky Strike.” Clearly, he hadn’t met Albert Lasker. But he was about to. The locomotive that was Albert Lasker had a completely different point of view: He reckoned that in exchange for underwriting a broadcast, brands should be offered an opportunity to present the sort of “reason why” advertising they did in print, but adapted for sound. Instead of parcels of space, they would occupy parcels of time. And that is how the broadcast “commercial,” as it came to be known, was born. Merlin, meet Albert.

In no time, Lasker was basking in the success of sponsored radio programs, like Amos ‘N Andy and The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope, and quickly embraced the new medium on behalf of other clients. In solving a problem for his clients, Lasker provided the economic model radio had been struggling to find: big-name advertisers could provide big money to underwrite high-caliber entertainment for a mass audience. The bigger the audience, the greater the value to advertisers, and theoretically, the more they would pay for production. Radio would provide top-rank entertainment, but it would not be free.

Listeners would pay by allowing themselves to be exposed to a commercial. It seemed just the right fit in a world of compromise. You want to go camping? You tolerate mosquitoes. You want to fly? You tolerate removing your belt at airports. You want Groucho Marx in your living room? No problem, provided the nation’s three thousand Plymouth-De Soto dealers could tag along. And there it was: The Great Unwritten Contract. Sponsors funded programming, and in return, they took some of the listener’s time and attention.

And it was good.

When television took off in the 1950s, it suffered few of the birthing pains that radio had; Albert Lasker had provided a readymade economic template. At the same time, the postwar economic boom gave consumers enough cash to buy television sets, and as TV viewership grew, the value of its audience became increasingly attractive to advertisers. Sponsors lined up to pour fresh buckets of money into the new medium. 

A large part of the attraction was the “mass audience” experience of the new medium; like radio, it drew millions of people to the same event during the same time span. The morning after a broadcast, it seemed that the talk was all about what “everyone” had been watching the night before: Ralph and Norton’s latest get-rich-quick scheme or which dress Uncle Miltie wore on Texaco Star Theatre. It was the shared experience, as much as the programs themselves that caused a buzz around the broadcasts. There was a thrill in knowing that millions of others were watching the same show at the same moment. Sponsors’ ads were a small price to pay.

OK, back to the bookmark. Here’s the point, and even Ogilvy agreed with this: Advertising has to uphold its end of the Great Unwritten Contract. Put simply, advertising has to give you something back in exchange for your time. At the low end of that transaction, the ads themselves have to at least be entertaining, or informative, or dramatically interesting. In other words, the advertiser has to reward you with a smile or a bit of information that you didn’t know before. That’s motherhood in this debate.

At the high end, the advertising has to give you something substantive back in exchange for your attention. Advertising should underwrite the entertainment. The ad revenue should be plowed back into creative production. So when CBS makes $271M per year from advertising revenue on Late Night With David Letterman, a big chunk of it goes to making more David Letterman shows. The ads in news programs fund the travel and salaries of the news gatherers around the world. The ads in a magazine fund the magazine content. Ads in a newspaper pay the reporter’s salaries. Paid keyword searches fund that wonderful little thing you call Google.

That’s the basis of the Great Unwritten Contract. The ads underwrite the programs or content you love, you sit through the ads in return. It was and is a good deal.

When advertising breaks that contract, trouble brews. I truly believe that you can chart the start of ad-induced bathroom runs to when advertising started to take but not give. When the ads themselves stopped being interesting, and became repetitive and relentless and unrewarding, people started getting annoyed with them. When 1950s ad gurus like Rosser Reeves believed that high repetition of kindergarten-like ad propositions (Anacin relieves headaches! Anacin relieves headaches!! Anacin relieves headaches!!!) were the path to big sales, he and admen like him, broke the contract. When one of his own clients asked Reeves whether the ice-pick-to-the-forehead strategy wasn’t turning people off, Reeves answered with a famous question: “Do you want to be liked, or do you want to be rich?”

I dislike telemarketing not just because it’s annoying, but also because it breaks the contract, disrespecting the customer and interrupting without apology. It breaks all the rules of good marketing, which is to say it isn’t pleasantly surprising or polite or humorous or meaningful. Telemarketers make no attempt to build a relationship with their clients, nor do they try to live up to the Contract: offering something in exchange for the customer’s time. Telemarketers don’t give you anything. They just call to take, and leave you with a cold bucket of the Colonel’s chicken.

Let’s talk cinema advertising. Unless I’m very wrong, ticket prices didn’t come down when ads went up. These days, the moviegoer has been demoted from welcome guest to mere chattel, whose time and attention are commodified and sold to a growing number of advertisers. 

And for this you pay them.

Billboards have to figure out a way to give back. Ladybird was simply reacting to the fissure in the Contract. She didn’t know it then, but she was. Where was the giveback? Where was the reciprocity? Cut to Mr. Johnson having to introduce billboard legislation to keep the Mrs. happy while juggling civil rights and Viet Nam. No one said marriage was easy.

By now, you must think this is quite a rant for an adman. Followed by the question – will he ever work again?

Yet I believe in the Contract. Wholeheartedly. But here’s the thing: Every contract has two sides. A contract isn’t a contract until two people shake hands. Which means, if you have some favorite television programs like the Letterman show, or Survivor, or 60 Minutes, you should be honoring your side of the Contract, and watching the commercials embedded in those programs.

Because if you’re not, you’re breaking the Contract. You are in breach.

Every time you leave the room to go to the fridge, or to the bathroom during a commercial break, or fast-forward through the ads with your TiVo, you are quietly, surreptitiously, covertly, violating the Contract.

You get away with it because it’s not enforceable by law. If a roofing contractor took your money, and didn’t replace your roof, you’d be outraged. If your dentist sent you a bill but didn’t fill the cavity, you’d bounce off all four walls.

So how do you justify not watching the commercials that underwrite the programs you watch and religiously record? 

Screw ‘em, I hear you say. The commercials they put out are crap, most are barely watchable. But there are also scores of good commercials. Just like there are good and bad movies, books and songs. As a matter of fact, the United States constantly ranks first or second internationally every year when it comes to creative advertising. It’s a verifiable fact.

So here we are at that rarely talked-about impasse. Advertisers break the contract with bad commercials, you avoid their commercials to punish them, but still take the programs. It’s like a Quentin Tarrantino standoff, where everyone has a gun. 

So here’s an idea: Stop buying from advertisers that send you bad commercials. Every time you buy from those advertisers, they come to people like me and ask for more bad commercials. When I protest, they just point to their sales results, and the air goes out of my argument. They believe that bad ads work, because you, the consuming public, are enablers. Instead, only buy from the advertisers that assume intelligence, that make you smile, that give you advertising that tells you something you didn’t know 30 seconds ago, advertisers that respect you.
 
Then, stop the TiVo when you see one of their ads go whizzing by, rewind the machine, and watch the commercial. Don’t punch that button on your car radio when a good commercial comes on, listen to it. Read that interesting ad across from the story you’re devouring in Vanity Fair.  Don’t answer the phone when a 1-800 number shows up on the readout.

Patronize the advertisers holding up their end of the Contact. And do the honorable thing: hold up your end.