The future of advertising is not advertising
Answers without questions
Is advertising harmful to people and the society? And do those in communications still do, in essence, what dear old lying advertising has always done?
We asked ourselves questions like these, and tried to answer them, by reading an interesting article by philosopher Luciano Floridi.
Floridi says advertising is an altered and dysfunctional type of information, because it is an "answer without a question." It provides unsolicited information about things that people do not need. Having to answer questions that do not exist, it becomes increasingly aggressive and loud to get people's attention. To the point of being harmful and toxic to public discourse.
This definition is intriguing, and Floridi starts from a supportable premise: advertising often appears loud, superfluous, superficial. Even insiders live with the suspicion that advertising hurts, is manipulative and inauthentic. Where does this belief come from? Why do many people feel advertising as hostile and adversary?
The struggle for attention
Advertising as we know it is the result of a definite industrial-type economic system.
A linear system, punctuated by very clear steps: a company creates a product or service, then undertakes to distribute and sell it, then invests a portion of its budget to make it known and purchased. Therefore, over time, it must keep on spending resources and money to defend it against competitors.
Before the Internet, companies could only rely on so many barriers to defend their business. Remember the 4 P's of marketing? Product, Price, Placement, Promotion - each step was felt as necessary and had its own dedicated budget. No one would have dreamed of jumping or replacing a link in the chain, asking questions such as, "Is it worthwhile for us to open a store in that specific location, or is it enough for us to advertise?"
Then, the Internet and digital came, and the line broke down. The different phases overlapped and created unpredictable trajectories. We listen to music without buying any items, we watch movies without going to the movies, and, in the United States, SHEIN can compete with H&M and Zara without even having a physical store.
Barriers have collapsed and the war of all against all has begun, where the ultimate goal is only one: to reach end consumers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The era of performance
While it is true that it was the Internet that started this war, it is also true that it gave us the perfect weapon to win it: performance marketing, or the set of promotional forms aimed at generating an immediate reaction from users - a purchase, a subscription, a click, a like. In performance marketing, everything is measurable, cheap, fast and reassuring. The advertiser pays based on the results obtained; each message is personalized and localized, and this allows us to avoid an unnecessary waste of resources.
With performance marketing, advertising has definitely transformed from a marketing and brand building tool into a sales tool.
The hunt for performance drives us to spend more and more resources to win over people who can buy our product, or products similar to ours. We look for shortcuts and attention-maximizing systems that harm creativity and tend to standardize communicative actions. A trend that promises to be further exacerbated by the use of artificial intelligence systems, which is - and will be - massive in this area.
The result: advertising that is the enemy of people, and which, moreover, does not always work! Indeed, during the pandemic, companies that stopped performance marketing did not experience significant differences in sales results. Airbnb has shifted much of its marketing budget from performance to brand building - and apparently made the right choice.
Perhaps there is no need to censor advertising or limit budgets by law. Perhaps this idea of advertising as a sales tool is destined to die out, simply because it no longer meets current needs. And perhaps we can come up with a different way of doing communication that is more useful for business and more sustainable for society.
From performance to history
The point is that in the fluid contexts created by digital, communication becomes increasingly important. It is hard to imagine that we are moving toward a world with less advertising, as the volume of advertising will probably continue to grow. The problem is figuring out how to make it grow not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. How to move from performance-obsessed communication -that generates ephemeral results only in the short term - to communication that can really tell something, create lasting connections, and remain memorable over the long term.
Benedict Evans wrote that in a world where linear processes have come loose, commodity categories are blurred, everyone competes with everyone, "everything is advertising, everything is brand and everything is about the story."
In our preferred future, stories take the place of advertising. Dense, meaningful stories that have more and more to do with people's lives and less and less to do with describing (or extolling) products and services. These are the stories of which brands destined to endure and become cultural phenomena are made.
Today, people ask organizations to know how to build a world in which it makes sense to live, to have experiences, to spend time before money. And big brands are especially committed to understanding the cultural tensions that can motivate their future customers to enter the narrative world they have set up.
Questions from the future
We have gone through the explosion of technology, and today all companies are technology and digital companies. We went through the age of design, and we realized that it is much better to incorporate design into the process of creating a product and service from the beginning, rather than understanding it as styling at the end of the process. Today, we enter the era of creativity, branding and history. And instead of hiring a creative agency at the end of the product creation journey, to help us sell it or worse, as Floridi says, to bring up a question we had overlooked, focused as we were on coming up with an answer, we will involve creativity at the beginning of it all. Everything will start with the story we want to tell and with our future customers - the products and services may even come later, they will be a consequence of the world we will have created.
Let's try to rephrase the problem we started with this way: advertising is not "wrong" because it is an answer without a question, but because it is often an answer to a question squashed on the present, or coming from the past.
Our task should be to find answers to the questions that come from the future.