Jan 19, 2011

The End Of An Era

It's a given that the ad business has dropped in stature since the golden days of the 1960s. But that may have less to do with the vast array of scapegoats, everything from holding companies to banner ads, than it does with the products being advertised themselves.

The mid-twentieth century was all about creating unique images for fairly identical products. The post-war boom had left the US economy awash in new consumer goods and it was the ad agencies job to help consumers differentiate one brand of soap from another. Since most of the brands were fairly identical and equally useful, an effective ad campaign really could make or break a product. Thus the frequent use of humor and jingles, two memorable devices that helped drive home a brand’s key selling points.

And while CPG advertising is still alive and well, what’s really turning heads and shaking up markets these days are innovative new products that have no competitors. They’re often too complex to adequately explain in an ad: you need to actually experience the product—or the retail experience-- to understand the zeitgeist.

Take the iPad, for instance. You can read and watch all you want, but the key to the purchase cycle is actually touching and playing with one. What drives that is not advertising, but word-of-mouth: people spontaneously talking to their friends about how much they love their iPads. The guy on a train asking a stranger how she finds typing on it. It's not a product, it's a conversation piece and that's not something you could say about most mid-century packaged goods.

And so maybe that’s just it: advertising, the funny, entertaining, pop culture phenomenon that defined the 1960s, 70s and 80s, was a product of its times. It helped us make sense of a confusing array of new mass produced products and became redundant as media splintered and new products were more often iterations of old ones (e.g. Bud Light Lime) than entirely new categories.  Add to that the spurt of innovative businesses – everything from Starbucks to WholeFoods to Amazon— whose  unique end-to-end experiences helped differentiate them from their competitors, and you have the end of an era.

What follows, a world where consumer-generated messages and brand messages are integrated in a seamless loop, may not be nearly as sexy. But it may just prove more useful.  

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