January 20, 2007
Choking the Golden Goose: In Advertising, Ubiquity Is the New Exclusivity?

For anyone who didn't have the chance to see last Monday's New York Times piece on the spread of advertising into every public space imaginable, it's worth checking out. The gist of the article, by Louise Story, is that advertisers are flooding public spaces with all kinds of new sales messages in an attempt to overcome the advertising clutter and to reach people in a mass number--in transit--as media platforms becoming increasingly niche.

The quote in the title came from Linda Kaplan Thaler from her ad agency, the Kaplan Thaler Group. But it seems indicative of the ignorance of the advertising industry to the idea that intrusiveness is the anti-ad. Their arguments hold up in the short-term--that even as ads annoy people, they will put the name in people's mind. And that may be true, but it doesn't do much for building long-term goodwill.

Story's article identifies both the good and unique ways advertisers are reaching people that displays innovative thinking that also doesn't get in people's way but also the immediate oversaturation by advertisers who don't seem to have any sense to quit while they are ahead. Beaming advertisements onto city sidewalks, putting advertising on barf bags, trying to brand the George Washington Bridge--I mean, really, is the industry that stupid? I have met some awfully bright minds from the ad industry, and we even have what I would consider a phenomenal group of people from GSD&M as one of our partners here at C3. None of the people I've talked to there are out to pay people to name their babies after insurance companies or brand their clients' logos on the backsides of strippers (I'm being a little cheeky here, by the way, as these are not examples that appeared in the Story...story, thankfully).

Story points out that some people, aside from the anti-advertising people who've always been out there but rarely listened to by the mass public, are starting to rebel, as advertising reaches a possible anger tipping point. Story writes, "Some people have had enough. Last month, after some "Got Milk?" billboards started emitting the odor of chocolate chip cookies at San Francisco bus stops, many people complained, and the city told the California Milk Processing Board to turn off the smell."

Another important question is about product placement and the difference between organic product placement and the type of ubiquity that distracts and annoys consumers, which we've written about several times (most recently here.

Some people in the industry seem to have sense, represented in this story by Gretchen Hoffman who handles marketing and sales for Universal Orlando Resort, who says, "What all marketers are dealing with is an absolute sensory overload," and points out that the landscape is becoming "overly saturated" as companies try to make their products stand out.

I've written before about advertising in public spaces and particularly about how Times Square is increasingly becoming seen as an advertising platform itself, based on another great Times

A marketer from Miller Brewing Company displays the negative side of the industry perspective pretty succinctly, quoted as saying, "No one wants to annoy the consumer. However, there are many annoying ads that sell products, and it's very difficult to tell what annoys one consumer and what pleases another." The question is that, if the ad is annoying as many potential consumers as it's pleasing, IS IT A GOOD IDEA??? (Since good sense doesn't seem to help, I thought capital letters might work.)

One would hope that the story's ending point, in which a Perry Ellis employee has a bit of a mid-sentence epiphany, might have some impact. He is talking about how these new mediums are sought to help rise above the clutter but then realizes that what they do really just adds more clutter to that pile.

One of the primary examples Story points to is the CBS decision to put advertisements on eggs. Back in July, I originally wrote about this campaign, observing:

To use a phrase related to a different type of food, the campaign seems a little corny, but even the most hardboiled of critics can't help but crack a smile at the "eggvertising," as the network is calling it. While traditional ad spaces seem so crowded, the plain white space on egg shells are a fruitful place to reach audiences, the network believes.

And, for those who are rallying to keep advertising out of the little crevices of our lives, the campaigns to protect the eggs on our grocers' shelves has probably already begun. There are probably plenty of anti-commercial advocates who believe that this eggvertising is purely deviled. CBS likes the approach for its intrusiveness, using a company called EggFusion to put the messages on the eggs. That intrusiveness is, my intuition tells me, the very reason a lot of people are going to be offended by the campaign, although its cleverness and rarity may help offset some of the negative energy that could be directed toward it.

And, interestingly, the actual purpose for the messages are to assure customers that eggs are not out-of-date by putting the expiration directly on the egg and to give a way to track the egg's origin information, and advertising was the impetus that helped make that possible, since egg producers were willing to allow the expiration dates on for extra profit.

In the meantime, CBS executives are going to be walking on eggshells, hoping they don't get...egg on their face. And one has to wonder if fans, when they get ahold of the CBS-adorned eggs, might try to generate a little user-created content on the eggs' surface as well, altering some of the CBS messages creatively or decorating the CBS eyes. Will the network be thrilled with such textual poaching?

Creativity, in my mind, is coming up with good and effective ideas, not just off-the-wall ideas. And advertising executives are really trying to test out the theory that all publicity is good publicity with some of these ill-advised campaigns. Let's just hope the more level-headed in the business help steer the direction soon away from some of these invasive examples that serve to further damage brands to many consumers by creeping into places they aren't wanted.