Monday’s New York Times story on the ubiquity of advertising ignited some discussion about the relative merits and demerits of ads everywhere, all the time. Many writers lamented the loss of blank space while others decried the crass commercialization of Everything. I’m a little more sanguine, however.
Early in the Times article, Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive at the Kaplan Thaler Group, a New York ad agency, is quoted as saying, “Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.” This is one of the article’s key statements about this trend. The statement itself reminds us that the trend will one day be replaced. The fact that we are reading an article about it in a major daily makes us believe that day will come sooner rather than later. In fact, one suspects that Ubiquity is now, well, ubiquitous.
This ubiquity of ads, though, has a meritorious effect – innovation. It takes great ads to break through the clutter and it’s the existence of great ads that convinces consumers to allow the clutter. Any consumer backlash is quickly felt. The “Got Milk?” signs that smelled like chocolate chip cookies in San Francisco bus stops caused complaints and were quickly “de-smelled.” Longer in coming but much more draconian is the ban on outdoor advertising that began on January 1st in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Despite the ultimate outcome, I do believe the smelly “Got Milk?” signs were a good idea. They went a bit too far for some people, but I’ll bet there were more people telling friends they’ve got to visit a bus stop to smell the sign than there were complaints. (Advocates for those sensitive to scents ultimately did them in. It is San Francisco after all.)
One of the great ads mentioned in the article was “an interactive floor display for McDonaldâ€™s last year [that] showed the head of a teenage boy with small Big Mac burgers flying past; when people stepped on the ad, the burgers bounced away from their feet.” An Adidas sign “looked like a static picture of a sneaker until someone walked past it, triggering a motion sensor that sent a spray of miniature sneakers flying.” People liked these ads, were amused by them, and were probably glad they saw them. Although another innovation, the electronic billboard, is said to make a community “look like Las Vegas,” if programmed to be season, time of day, event, or even weather specific, it will be a great improvement over the static pasted graphics now on display. As John McNeil, executive creative director at McCann said, “If you do it the right way, you actually win points.”
As another example, look at product placement, which was also demonized when it first became popular. The fact is, it enhances a user’s experience, whether it’s watching television or playing a video game. A NASCAR video game with actual products on the cars is much more realistic than one with blurred logos, and we always laughed at how TV characters never drank a recognizable brand of soda.
Interestingly enough, even the ad opponents mentioned in the article seemed to accept the ads, they just wanted advertisers to pay more. The New York and New Jersey Port Authority canceled plans for Geico to place ads at toll booths at the George Washington Bridge when politicians and preservationists complained. The preservationists may have been high-minded about it, but others (only the politicians?) felt the space was sold too cheaply. In New York City last month Chase and Commerce banks were told by the city to turn off ads projected onto the sidewalk outside some branches. I have to wonder if it was because no fees were paid for the sidewalk space. As George Bernard Shaw said,”…now we’re haggling about the price.”
Ultimately this trend will also respect varying community mores, as the Sao Paulo example shows. Commenting on the Adidas sign, a women from the state of Washington said the sign was “cool,” but “I wouldnâ€™t want to see it back in Spokane.”
Finally, one ad agency president said that this type of out-of-home advertising is “one of the last mass mediums.” Yes, and perhaps that explains why it’s so popular among ad agencies – like nearly all mass media advertising, a good creative ad can make a big splash, yet the ROI really can’t be measured. The article ends with Perry Ellis dubbing a campaign which placed ads on shirt boxes and dry cleaning bags a success because laundries continue to call looking for more after the campaign ended. Since the bags and boxes were given to the laundries for free, that tells me more about the cleaners desire for free bags than the success of the campaign.