Art & Commerce: Hidden Persuaders

I went to Africa in 1981 and finally learned what a targeted media buy can do.
Although I had been writing about the business for several years, the trip was a break in the ad beat for me. I joined a group of 16 journalists on a United Nations-sponsored tour of refugee areas. One of our visits was to Ulyankulu, a
self-sufficient refugee village in Tanzania. There, I had my epiphany.
We were invited by a young mother to visit her home. Smiling shyly, she swept a frail arm toward the opening that passed for a doorway, welcoming us inside. It was one room with a packed mud floor. A low bench and small table, also of dark brown mud, were the only furnishings. Light came from a small circular window.
The sole adornments on the wall were three magazine print ads. One was a Lufthansa ad promising exciting travel, one a fashion ad featuring a sophisticated woman in a tailored suit and the third was a four-color ad for a red Italian sports car.
These were dreams on the wall. As someone who thinks of advertising and media strategy in purely commercial terms, I felt an almost electric sense of revelation. Here was communication that transcended economics, an unequivocal demonstration of how, in rare moments of grace, advertising doesn’t just persuade, but inspires.
This wall struck me as the perfect example of the medium being the message. Magazines were the only medium through which our gentle hostess could have expressed her dreams. She certainly wasn’t reachable by television or even radio, and the jungle isn’t a big outdoor market.
Today, she’d probably own a Walkman and an iMac. There may even be billboards on the road to Ulyankulu. The line between medium and message is more blurred than ever; on the Internet, it disappears altogether. What this promises media executives is the opportunity to evolve their craft from pseudo science to something that comes close to art.
Modern media agencies claim that what distinguishes them from their predecessors is their independence and resources. What we’re not hearing is an enthusiasm for the creativity this new mediacentric world can unleash.
Innovations in media are regarded as new tools, not instruments of creativity. Like those NetZero ads that parody Cold War culture, the new media can liberate people as well as persuade them.
We never use the word “creativity” in connection with media people. Those who make the messages call themselves “creatives.” And that’s the point: The transfer of power in advertising from the creative and account departments to the unbundled media companies and global media specialists offers a unique opportunity. They can now use
creativity in a visible way. They can innovate and invent and be acknowledged as something other than
number crunchers.
The dreams that media can produce may no longer represent inconceivable fantasies hung on dark mud walls in the African jungle. Our global village has become too small for that illusion. But its power will be mighty nonetheless.