Dark Waters

We’re constantly being told that advertising is dead, but of course it never is. It’s just that its practitioners look like zombies.

They wobble around, dazed, like an amnesiac with nothing in his pocket but a business card. He knows his name, his title and the company he works for, but he has no real idea what he should be doing. Tomorrow he’ll be at a different company, with a different title, and the business card will be some weird shape, thanks to an overcaffeinated twentysomething designer with a pierced belly button.

This is a new phenomenon. Back in the primeval three-network forest, agency people knew exactly who they were and what they were doing. Now they confront an army of things they are supposed to be insightful about but can’t really figure out: search consultants, fragmentation, consolidation, clutter, wear-out, burn out, integration, compensation, personal video recorders, content marketing, banners, skyscrapers, holding-company stock.

Ad people eye this swarm like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor musing about what to do with his hit-man girlfriend: “Do I kill her, or do I marry her? Which one of dese?” They’re paralyzed with indecision.

And that’s where the “Advertising is dead” chorus comes in, when those inside and outside the business argue about why advertising can’t sell itself. Why it’s no longer cool. When it jumped the shark.

“Jumping the shark,” one of the more inventive buzz phrases, originally referred to the exact moment a TV show went into decline, when it stopped being cool. It comes from a Happy Days episode in which a water-skiing Fonzie leaps a shark pen to win a bet. The phrase begat a Web site, www.jumptheshark.com, which begat a book, Jump the Shark: When Good Things Go Bad. It now refers to no-turning-back moments of all kinds. As in: My relationship with my teenage son jumped the shark when he dyed his hair purple.

But when, exactly, did it happen to advertising?

When Bill Bernbach died? When David Ogilvy moved to France for good? When Ben Franklin got out of the business? Cordiant didn’t jump the shark, Cordiant got eaten by the shark. So that’s not it. Maybe advertising jumped the shark when purchasing agents started running reviews?

No. As Jack Nicholson might say, it’s none of dose.

See, this isn’t entropy. It isn’t inevitable. Some things never jump the shark. And some things jump back. Like advertising.

What advertising ought to do is position itself as the one industry that doesn’t need a positioning. As a constantly evolving communications stream that mutates as the marketplace, technology and audience dictate. It’s advertising’s job to know where the shark is at all times, and to get close to it. The industry could find a whole new life selling itself this way—as the only enterprise designed to seek out the shark, jump it, and then jump back, over and over.

Sure, even that probably won’t silence the advertising-is-deadheads. But it would make for some busy business-card designers.