Context is to Chicken as Content is to Egg

By Matt Van Hoven 

The clip above seeks to answer the question of which is more important: Context or Content. It’s the sort of question that tends to get lost in rhetoric, but whoever answers it will have the fundamentals of advertising in 2008 figured out. Unless of course, they want to survive through The Real Digital Revolution.

We took the insights with a grain of salt, but wanted to share them with you, as well as the thoughts of Alan Wolk, another guy you should be paying attention to &#151 or at least reading.


In the video, CP+B Chairman Chuck Porter said storytelling is the method “smart marketers” are using to reach their audiences. Rather than saying, “let’s make a TV commercial,” they’re looking for that “really interesting idea” that will engage the audience.

“It’s really become much more about story telling,” said Porter.

Nick Law, EVP and CCO of R/GA North America, countered that point, noting that, “where as it used to be sort of keystone of advertising, you know the ability to tell a story…it now is, is, one of many many ways to communicate with people,” he said. “Becuase if you rely just on narrative, as I said before, then you’re up against Hollywood.”

(ed’s note: Am I the only one who likes watching commercials as much as I do the programs they’re sponsoring?)

Porter went on to defend content, noting that it has to be smart enough not to bother the consumer.”There’s got to be content there that you really care about and want to look at,” he said.

Conversely, Law stated, “It starts not from a tag line or a punchline, but from understanding where the consumer is, what they’re doing and what they want.”

More after the jump.

And just like that, a conundrum is born. But just like the chicken and the egg, a winning argument isn’t quantifiable. Frank Scherma, president of weighed in by saying advertisers have to consider both at the same time.

In an Adweek article entitled, “You are not my friend: Why consumers only want to hang with the prom king” Alan Wolk takes a Porterian point of view, stating, “Like a reformed tax-and-spend politician who’s suddenly seen the light, ad agencies are busy telling anyone who’ll listen that they’re not about selling anymore. No, what they’re into now is “storytelling” and “conversation.” Because you see, consumers aren’t really customers anymore. They’re friends. But come on guys, who are you really fooling? Your brand is not my friend.”

He continued that although “friends” will accept commercials on television (ed’s note: albeit less so, with TiVo and DVR), they won’t in social settings like Facebook.

“Facebook is the 21st century malt shop. It’s where people go to hang out. And the last thing they want is some salesperson trying to have a ‘conversation’ with them while they’re figuring out what movie they’re going to see. They don’t want to talk to you. They want to talk to their friends.”

We agree to this point; but as ad-friendly consumerism dwindles so do advertisers’ opportunities to engage their markets. More and more it comes down to word of mouth exchanges that result in a consumer making an informed buying decision with the help of the internet. Wolk discusses this in another article called “The Real Digital Revolution” in which he expounds on how TRDR “is about consumer empowerment, the ability to research and learn about products and services and make decisions independent of marketing and advertising.”

“To give you an example: I want to buy an iPod adapter for my car. So I went to the online Apple store, Amazon and CNET and read a bunch of reviews. Winnowed them down, listened to the experts, eliminated the clear whiners and the “can you believe how cool technology is” know-nothings. And learned that (a) the category’s improved a lot over the past several years (it seems static was a big issue) and that (b) the Kensington adapter enjoys a very slight advantage over the Monster one, and while both would be fine choices, the Kensington is $20 cheaper. So Kensington it is.

And while I may be more advanced than your average consumer, I see more and more purchase decisions being made this way. Clever ad campaigns be damned.”

This idea puts Porter, Law and Schermas’ notions to bed. With increasingly empowered consumers, the eventual trend is pointing to diminished need for engaging advertising. Although it may be entertaining, no commercial or brand produced anything is ever going to convince a consumer to be a lifetime member.

What it will come down to is a quality product that is defended by legitimate Web critics, along with top notch social media efforts, ‘no-bullshit’ transparency when mistakes are made, and (probably) high environmental standards.

Does this mean none of your hard advertising work matters anymore? We can’t answer that question. But the best thing most advertising does is teach people to ignore it. Maybe getting out of the consumer’s face could work. Think of it like this; a parent wants his 13 year-old daughter to think he’s cool (enough to hang out with). But she doesn’t want to be daddy’s little girl anymore, because it isn’t cool, in fact it’s lame, and she doesn’t see the relationship becoming something different than it already is. Dad doesn’t get this, so he smothers her &#151 and before long the relationship is at a stand-still.

We could drag the analogy on further, but the point is simple. Brands can’t smother, but should (in so many words) sit back and wait for consumers to realize their products are superior. This idea tears at the very tenets of advertising, but from a consumer’s perspective, finding ways to avoid the 5k ads we’re inundated with each day is more of a game now than ever before.

There will always be a space for ads &#151 people have to know what’s new and it’s your job to tell them. Maybe it’s not time to throw storytelling, context, the egg and all of it out with the baby water. But when it is, will you be aware that the change has happened, or will you be smothering your daughter with attention she doesn’t want?

Note: Nokia paid for a big drawn out promotional stunt, via Local Theory, a New York boutique that does mobile content. It all revolved around the 2008 Young Cannes Lions competition. Nokia is pushing their Nseries camera, and there’s an MTV special about the YCL competition some time in the near future. More info here.