When Marketing Becomes Almighty
By HARRY HURT III
“Had you stumbled upon this planet in any other era, you might have concluded that we lived in an age of stone or bronze, an ice age, an age of reason, or an age of enlightenment,” they write in “The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture” (Counterpoint, $26).
“But today? You couldn’t help but conclude that we live in an age of persuasion, where people’s wants, wishes, whims, pleas, brands, offers, enticements, truths, petitions and propaganda swirl in a ceaseless, growing multimedia firestorm of sales messages.”
Mr. O’Reilly hosted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series “O’Reilly on Advertising” and co-founded Pirate Radio and Television, a production company. The book is named after another CBC series, “The Age of Persuasion,” created by Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Tennant, a freelance writer and lecturer.
Their book is at its best tracing the evolution of modern advertising — from the mid-19th century through the present.
The authors credit Samuel F. B. Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1844 with allowing manufacturers to exchange transcontinental communications with newspapers. The next year, they say, Volney Palmer, a Philadelphia businessman, created the first modern ad agency. The business was essentially a middleman that bought up blocks of ad space in newspapers across the country, then resold them in parcels to expansion-minded manufacturers. Although it was still up to the manufacturers to create their own sales messages, the agency freed them from the task of identifying and negotiating dozens or even hundreds of ad placement opportunities.
In the 1920s, Burma-Shave pioneered billboard advertising. The company eventually posted sequential signs in 45 states with messages like “Special seats/Reserved in Hades/For whiskered guys/Who scratch their ladies/Burma-Shave.”
The Burma-Shave signs helped set a standard for advertisers to provide consumers with something of value — in this case, entertaining quips — in exchange for their attention to sales messages.
With the dawn of radio, the authors say, this advertiser-consumer exchange evolved into a “great unwritten contract.” On radio, the provided value was daily offerings of entertainment and information, whether in music, drama, comedy or news briefs.
“It was a great deal, and it solved a huge problem for early broadcasters, who, unlike theaters, couldn’t charge admission, and who, unlike magazines and newspapers, couldn’t solicit subscriptions,” the authors note, adding, “This same unwritten, unspoken contract would form the economic template for television and, more recently, the Internet.”
YouTube, founded in 2005, follows in the tradition of exchanging something of value for audience attention. The authors say it is revolutionizing marketing by enabling “democratized ad messaging.” Rather than being the passive recipients of sales pitches from advertisers accompanied by entertainment or information, consumers can now create and disseminate their own entertainment and information in the form of videos.
“Since the rise of the Internet in the ’90s, and with the growth of texting, instant messaging and online social networking, ad-driven mass media, especially television and print, are fast losing their power as the gatekeepers of information, music and entertainment,” the authors say. “People are connecting directly in groups and communities, leaving many advertisers locked outside, pawing longingly at the window.”
A large chunk of YouTube’s audience, he notes, is under the age of 20 — the so-called Yoots, who account for $570 billion in annual buying power. The authors contend that to reach the Yoot demographic, marketers must learn to create “a whole new language” for selling products and services that taps into the Yoots’ fondness for customizing and personalizing messages.
As a prime example of an existing marketing model, the authors cite Starbucks. They say it broke the premium price barrier for a cup of coffee by changing the name of what was once described in common use as a “small” serving to what the chain describes as a “tall.”
“In fact, the coffee culture championed by Starbucks has millions of customers speaking in tongues,” he says. “With its baristas serving iced quad Venti with whip skinny caramel macchiatos, they draw customers into the Starbucks culture, complete with its unique language, creating an exclusive club and community.”
“THE AGE OF PERSUASION” suffers from the fact that the authors are not veteran nonfiction print journalists. In the hands of a writer like Tracy Kidder, this book could have been more compelling. Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Tennant have a habit of scattering historical tidbits throughout their narrative without providing proper context.
They also fail to note that for many consumers, a brand-based language can be off-putting. I, for one, still insist on ordering a “small” coffee, not a “tall,” and on shutting out most of the 24/7 sales messages that attempt to invade my personal space.