Art & Commerce: Death by YouTube

Is the Web 2.0 cultural revolution of user-generated content good news for the ad industry? Will the explosion of fashionable blogs and social networks increase the size of the advertising economy? Can the YouTubification of professional creative content and the wikifying of mainstream authoritative media benefit advertisers and advertising companies?

The answer to these three questions, I’m afraid, is unambiguously negative. No, no, no. Web 2.0 is, in truth, the very worst piece of news for the advertising industry since the birth of mass media. In the short term, the Web 2.0 hysteria marks the end of the golden age of advertising; in the long term, it might even mark the end of advertising itself.

It’s not possible to talk about the meteoric rise of Web 2.0 without discussing the equally dramatic fall of mainstream media. These two profoundly significant historical events are occurring in parallel, each a cause and an effect of the other. And the fate of the advertising business is intimately bound up with both Web 2.0’s growth and mass media’s decline.

Evidence of the crisis of mass media is depressingly ubiquitous. The recorded music business is in free-fall, the tragic victim of mass digital kleptomania. As Craigslist gives away free classified ads and fewer and fewer of us are reading a daily newspaper, so journalists are being laid off while physical papers are shrinking in size and even being shuttered. Magazines aren’t doing much better, nor is radio. Meanwhile, the advertising-driven television business is about to be engulfed by the perfect technological storm of the digital video recorder and the YouTube content revolution. Even the publishing business is on the verge of an equally hideous fate as Google’s universal digital library undermines both the physical coherence and economic value of the traditional book.

As the mainstream media shrinks (and with it, advertising revenues), user-generated content and even user-generated advertising are becoming increasingly popular. Web 2.0, of course, is all about the so-called “empowerment” of the consumer through the disintermediation of traditional gatekeepers such as editors and publishers. Sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia and BlogHer are essentially bringing the price of creating content down to zero, thereby unleashing amateur mobs of wannabe Maureen Dowds, Bonos and Steven Spielbergs. Instead of Schindler’s List, we now have hundreds of thousands of personal videos on YouTube; instead of op-eds in The New York Times, we get tens of millions of ill-informed opinions from the blogosphere; instead of U2’s hit song “Vertigo,” we have the vertiginous cacophony of hundreds of thousands of aspiring bands on MySpace.

So how does this cultural freedom and its chaotic corollary, the eruption of infinite user-generated content, affect the advertising industry? The consequences are bleak for everyone except the newly minted multimillionaires at MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. What Web 2.0 is doing, compounded by the online consumer’s shrinking attention span and his or her hostility towards the “inauthenticity” of commercial messages, is radically deflating the value of advertising.

As the scarcity of mainstream media is replaced by the abundance of Web 2.0’s user-generated content, advertising itself is being painfully commoditized. Sure, Google sells billions of dollars worth of ads, but advertisers are failing to reproduce the value of analog commercials in the digital sector. Web 2.0 advertising is like user-generated content: inane, ephemeral and annoying. In a word: worthless. What sells online is direct marketing (that means spam) and other increasingly low-cost, ineffective and unsuccessful ways of reaching the consumer. Today’s Internet advertising is akin to life in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature: It’s nasty, brutish and short.

To misquote Marshall McLuhan, the message is missing its value. More content, of course, represents less value to the advertising business. “Long-tail” digital utopians try to seduce us with the vision of a cornucopian dawn in which the Internet’s infinite content will provide infinite advertising opportunities. But the supposed “freedom” of Web 2.0 is creating inferior and often corrupt content, which in turn results in fewer credible advertising opportunities for discriminating buyers. After all, what sane brand manager would consciously invest his or her dollars in a narcissistic blog, a semi-pornographic teen social network or an anonymously authored, self-serving wiki? Rather than choices, these are punishments. Caught between the Scylla of online garbage and the Charybdis of vanishing traditional media content, it’s no wonder, then, that the chief marketing officer’s average tenure has now dropped to little more than 14 months.

Yes, for the advertiser, media content is indeed losing its value, a value historically derived from its scarcity. This devaluation of media isn’t hard to quantify: It can be measured everywhere, in falling CPM and the failure of social networks to develop viable business models. No new technology—neither the false dawn of mobile, nor the holy grail of personalized, targeted advertising—is going to save the advertising business now. No, the truth is that advertising can only be saved if we can re-create media scarcity. That means less user-generated content and more professionally created information and entertainment, less technology and more creativity. The advertising community desperately needs more gatekeepers, more professional creative authorities, more so-called media “elites” who will curate, filter and organize content. That’s the way to re-establish the value of the message. It’s the one commercial antidote to Web 2.0’s radically destructive cultural democracy.