Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

The baby and the bathwater [post 46/100]

Another reader-suggested topic today… Here’s the question as it came in:

“how is the art of ad making getting disrupted by the ‘skip this ad’ on YouTube – i.e. what message can you get across in 5 seconds to make people watch 30s?”

I know I come down on advertising rather often and rather hard. But while it’s true that the industry at large can be pretty unsavoury and badly behaved, there have been some truly great ads – some of the world’s greatest photographers spent much of their careers in the advertising world, and everyone knows the Super Bowl is watched as much for the ads as for the game. A long-ago ex of mine worked in TV advertising and he put just as much thought and love into those little 30 or 60 second stories as any broadcast producer I’ve met. But right now, I don’t have a favourite tv ad. I don’t see them anymore, pretty much ever.

I don’t have a TV so I don’t watch linear programming, and I pay for ad-free services. On YouTube et al, I don’t even look at the ad that’s playing, I just focus on the place where the ‘Skip’ button will appear until it does, and then I click it. I suspect this is increasingly the case with these services’ broader user bases. So what’s to be done?

As usual, I think it’s constructive to start by thinking about why the ‘Skip’ functionality has such Pavlovian appeal. I suspect it’s to do with the fact that we are completely inundated by advertising that we can’t skip on the rest of the internets. Unless you’ve got an ad-blocker installed, not a moment online goes by without someone trying to sell you something. Over the years, online advertising has grown ever flashier, and some of it is downright intrusive. This is helped along by the fact that ad-supported is the default monetisation model for much of the digital startup world – to support ever more services, we need ever more ads. Not all of them are going to be good. And so we the people have adapted. We’ve grown blind to certain kinds of advertising and learned to focus on the parts of the screen that we know are most likely to be ad-free.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that given a chance, people will click the ‘Skip’ button the millisecond it appears. It’s a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater – if only because there’s so much bathwater it feels like we’re drowning in it. And if this is the case, I’m not even sure that making those first 5 seconds extra-compelling will do the trick. At least for a while, I think skipping is such a seductive little freedom that it will be the prevailing behaviour. If that’s the case, then it’s also possible that it will taper off after a while and people will start to watch at least some of the advertising that comes their way. Or maybe not.

But there’s another trend that’s growing in answer to these new behaviours: branded feature content.

In the history of audiovisual (or even audio) content, brands have usually acted in a sponsorship role: they get mentioned during a break in the programme (or shown during the programme itself, in the case of product placement), and in exchange they fund a portion of the programme’s production. Fair enough. But thanks to the internets, the business of distributing AV content has become so complex, multifaceted and fragmented that this model is neither as straightforward nor as effective as it used to be. Brands have been undergoing a transition for decades from story-supporters to storytellers in their own right – the brand is no longer a logo on a product; it’s the sum total of every interaction the customer has with the product or the company that makes it. Brands have developed anthropomorphic characteristics, and those that have done this well have made the best ads.

Now that ads are no longer necessarily being consumed by those who are watching the main event, some brands are taking another step forward and producing the main event itself; a standalone thing rather than a messaging campaign. It’s an interesting shift, and a challenging one. Not every brand will be able to stretch to the level of the LEGO movie and the Net-a-Porter glossy fashion magazine. What will (e.g.) Ecover make? A short film about an environmentally-conscious recluse with cleaning-focussed OCD?

As the ad industry continues to attempt to keep pace with the ever-more-fragmented digital world, I can’t see us getting less noise anytime soon. The bathwater will continue to rise and it’s likely we’ll continue to bail it, baby or no. But we’ll keep watching blockbuster movies, whether they’re made by MGM or by LEGO. So what will happen to the brands that don’t have big-screen appeal? Will they be relegated to paying to have their logos embossed on our toast? It remains to be seen. The only thing that seems certain is that the more of anything that’s thrown at us, the less of it we are able – or willing – to see.