Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Ad clutter is encroaching into nearly every walk of life
If there were ever a dog-bites-man story, it is the annual AAAA/ANA study of commercial clutter on television. It reveals, once again, that the number of ads on TV is up. A few weeks ago, there was a long plaint in Entertainment Weekly decrying greedy media conglomerates for shoving so many ads into shows–today’s “hour-long” drama lasts no more than 41 or 42 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the radio business, computers are literally squeezing the breath out of talk shows,
compressing the dead air between words to fit in as many as five extra minutes of spots.
And it’s not like a viewer can escape to advertiser-supported cable for relief. By the time the viewers sit through a few ad-stuffed pods on A&E’s Poirot, they can hardly remember what crime was done.
Still, TV and radio ads are the least of it. At least the commercial-bombarded TV public has some way of striking back, thanks to digital recorders and the latest generation of set-top boxes which bypass ads with a touch of a button. But what can you do about someone who is earning his car payments by turning his car into a wrap-around ad? He doesn’t have to look at it. For the rest of us, it’s another invitation to road rage.
Clutter is on my mind because Adweek is leaving its headquarters, located in what may be the most visually cluttered environment in the world: Times Square. I won’t miss it.
For the last seven years, we have witnessed the victory of those who wanted to preserve the square as an “advertising park” against city fathers who wanted to raze the then-derelict district and erect anonymous office towers in its place. The corporate skyscrapers are being built
anyway, but far from faceless, the new towers are now required to sport some signage.
Indeed, companies went the city planning commission one better by evolving from displaying signs to embedding commercials in the architecture itself.
At the corner of the Condƒ Nast building, the vast Nasdaq sign curves around the facade, delivering an enveloping wave of information. There is no more poignant metaphor for our ad-assaulted consumer than those invisible Conde Nast workers, peering out on the street through the gaps of an overpowering three-dimensional sign.
By the way, the Conde Nasties are lucky. In other parts of New York City, where outdoor ads are exploded, apartment tenants have been known to come home from work to find a billboard being erected over their windows.
Reason tells us that sooner or later the law of supply and demand will kick in and adjust the sheer amount of advertising to better reflect the limited capacity of its audience to absorb it. It seems only logical that the supply side, the advertisers, whose cause is hurt by clutter, would have sufficient incentive to contain it.
Unfortunately this conclusion depends on the erroneous assumption that the amount of advertising is related to how well it works. To the contrary, there is so much advertising precisely because much of the time it doesn’t work.
Of course, it’s heresy to say this. Marketing communications executives never tire of talking about their ability to provide real economic value to their clients. But despite these
sincere avowals, the industry’s overall growth is dependent on its routine failures, which drive it toward new venues, media, spaces, delivery systems and more ads.
Ineffectiveness fuels marketing’s growth–not the other way around; so help from the supply side is not forthcoming. How about the demand side? Again, logic suggests that the time will come when the beleaguered consumer will say, “Enough!”
First, this assumes consumers have anything to say about it. Second, although the public loves to complain about the barrage of advertising, it is not clear that they mean it.
How else to explain the Next Thing: Clothing in which a flexible computer is embedded, the better to display commercials, movie trailers and music videos to whoever is walking behind you. Invented by Stephan Fitch, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, this new wrinkle on the wearable computer is now a trade-show gimmick and promo stunt.
Fitch predicts that such clothing will eventually be mass-produced, allowing people to rent themselves out to advertisers. Is this a case of consumers identifying with the enemy or a perverse form of revenge on the cluttered media? Will consumers stop complaining and start competing by becoming a medium of their own?
Debra Goldman’s column will return July 17