Ads in the Age of Hysteria

We’ve just lived through the most hysterical decade since the first doomsday lunatic discovered you could make a nice buck proclaiming the end of the world.
First, we had the Y2K bug. Everything was going to come to a grinding halt because . . . I don’t know, something about software in clock radios. People were hoarding food and water. Then there was the parade of pandemics that would kill us all — mad cow and SARS and bird flu and Ebola and swine flu. People were walking around airports in surgical masks (which, honestly, I would like to encourage).
Then there were killer bees and super-bacteria and sudden unintended acceleration and . . .
So, you’re thinking, what does all this hysteria have to do with advertising? Well, if there’s one thing we ad hacks understand, it’s the relationship between anxiety and cash flow. We’ve spent decades creating anxiety in consumers by convincing them that unless they had the latest $300 jeans they were in danger of social exile.
Now we can apply the same principles to our clients. And so we have created an ongoing hysteria-fest called The Thing That Will Change Everything. The object is to keep marketers in a constant state of anxiety about the future.
The more we can convince them that everything is changing around them — and they need us to interpret the changes — the longer we stay employed.

Consequently, every few months we come up with a new The Thing That Will Change Everything to make them nice and jumpy. We’ve had practice at this. At one time we decided videotape was going to change everything. We’d be able to shoot spots in the morning (for $50) and have them on the air that afternoon.
Then the videocassette recorder was going to change everything. People would tape their favorite shows and play them back at their convenience (sound familiar?). And worst of all, they would fast-forward through the commercials (sound familiar?). Naturally, hysteria ensued.

Then the Web was going to change everything. Brick and mortar was dead and buried. The Web was going to create “disintermediation,” which meant we would purchase all our cat food and pick-up trucks online, directly from the manufacturer.
Then there was TiVo. Nobody was going to watch TV in real time. We would time-shift all our viewing and skip the commercials. Then came YouTube. We would watch all video online, also without the annoyance of advertising.

Between TiVo, YouTube, podcasts, widgets and social media, the pundit digerati have declared traditional advertising officially dead. I Googled “advertising is dead” recently and came up with over 10,000 citations.
Well, I’m sad to inform our gloomy chatterers that digital technology has not destroyed advertising. But it has presented a new generation of dubious prophets with a cornucopia of Things That Will Change Everything.

What makes all the hysteria so silly and unwarranted is how quickly consumers digest and adjust to “the future” — and how seamlessly it arrives.

We have a vision of “the future” as a startling new thing that will confuse and disorient us. You’d think by now we’d have learned that it doesn’t work that way. Someone introduces something astonishing — a mobile phone with a touch screen that can surf the Web, shoot video, play music, take photos and make the bed — and in about three weeks we’re ready for something new.

Marketers seem resolutely attached to the belief that technological advances always lead to large-scale disruptions in consumer behavior. They have conferences about it every two weeks. (Far be it from us to disabuse them of this bankable notion.)
In fact, consumers have developed a remarkable ability to incorporate amazing technological changes into their lives with very little disruption to their purchasing habits. Just as in every generation there have been a few technological changes, like iTunes, that have changed everything.

But one of the untold stories of the digital age is the surprising degree to which consumer behavior has remained stable in light of a revolution in technology, communication and media.
A few examples:
• According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce accounted for 4.1 percent of retail purchasing in Q2 2010. Brick-and-mortar retailing still represents about 96 percent of consumer activity.
• A study done at Duke University (with the cooperation of TiVo, IRI and in association with the University of Chicago) and released in May showed that even households with TiVo watch 95 percent of their TV live. Professor Carl Mela, who led the study, said, “Our initial goal was to simply measure how bad DVRs were for advertisers. . . . We tried a vast array of methodological approaches to find a DVR effect. And we just couldn’t . . . find [any] change in people’s shopping patterns when we compare a group that has TiVo with a group that doesn’t.”
• Nielsen’s Three Screen Report for the first quarter of 2010 shows that 99 percent of video is still viewed on a television. 1 percent is viewed online. Mobile viewing accounts for two-tenths of 1 percent of all video viewing. In other words, it essentially doesn’t exist.
The marketing industry still hasn’t gotten the memo that innovations in technology and media do not inexorably lead to major changes in consumer behavior. Over and over again, the facts tell us that these new technologies create small to moderate changes in purchasing behavior.
So why are we so enthusiastically supportive of the myth of The Thing That Will Change Everything? Simple. It’s the Age of Hysteria. Keeping our clients in a state of anxiety is just plain good business.
Bob Hoffman is CEO of Hoffman/Lewis and author of the blog The Ad Contrarian. He can be reached at