Advertising is dead. It’s game over I’m afraid and it’s all our fault. As soon as we’re empowered to switch it off, we do. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Our petulant Gen Z’ers are apparently the worst offenders as a recent study revealed that 69% of them block ads altogether as well as ‘skipping’ three seconds sooner than those in their thirties and forties. Don’t you think the very concept of being gently seduced by a glossy sixty second production, to buy a pair of jeans or a bottle of perfume, all seems rather quaint and nostalgic now? A throwback to the days when we awaited the ads between Cheers and The News. The heyday of advertising coincided with the heyday of TV and for obvious reasons. TV watching was a family sport and squeezed together on the Draylon sofa we would laugh, coo, sing-along or take the Michael out of every single image the bulky cathode ray tube delivered. The Guinness surfing horses, the Oxo Mum, the Hamlet cigar man, the Cadbury’s Smash tin aliens, the Levi’s launderette strip and the Lloyd’s Bank slo-mo horse were central to our evening’s entertainment. Yes, there were a lot of horses back then but we loved it. We were force fed a regular diet across three and a bit channels and we were happy.
Today an entire universe of entertainment has opened up for us and the freedom to block or skip advertising is part of the deal. Advertisers have a couple of seconds, max, to grab us before we skip on our way. The creative art of storytelling has been replaced by shouty and intrusive snippets. Building an emotional connection to a character or creating any sense of irony, subtlety, nuanced symbolism or artistic reference has been jettisoned for split second gags and slapstick visuals. Hands up all those who don’t hover above the countdown to exit the Youtube ads. Precisely.
Our attention spans are shrinking in direct response too, demanding faster and faster access to our personal choices, skipping past intro theme tunes and credits, surfing across content to get a gist, because a gist is enough now. As audiences shrink along with their attention spans, so too have the budgets. The slo-mo horses have been put out to pasture, replaced by dancing typography and hurried sound-bites. If we so much as click on, say, a new camera we know we’ll be incessantly drip fed Nikon ads for the next month in the vain hope we’ll succumb just for the irritation to cease.
Today’s ad execs hang out with a bad crowd, the freak show, click-bait salesmen who beckon us behind the marquee to witness ‘celebrity facelift disasters’ and ‘top ten red carpet fails’. Flashing boxes masquerading as ‘next’ buttons lead us down yet another dirty cul-de-sac to show us rude pictures. How on earth did it come to this?
Back at the West End ad agency the turtle-necked creatives are jittery and water cooler talk is of jumping ship and opening bars to test their skills in the real world. They know they missed the heyday by a generation or so, and it wrangles. They sense the sadness at the annual Webby awards, knowing their stiff grins and fleeting accolades are no match for the pride and status of their predecessors. They may as well be at a TUC conference. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some very clever stuff to be seen at the Webbys, it’s just that so very few of us could spare the ten seconds to watch.
Meanwhile, on the high street, retail CEOs lead posses that march the aisles in search of something that will turn their tankers around. A gaggle of merchandisers and marketing managers frantically scribble down the words of wisdom on product density like it’s the sermon on the mount. ‘Increase the size of the ticketing and re-merchandise that back wall.’ Everyone nods in agreement way too vigorously, but no one believes it will change a damn thing.
Are we to simply stand back and allow the high street to wither and die too, then return home and live the rest of our lives via Amazon and Deliveroo?
The answer is obvious. We must round up our army of frustrated ad creatives and let them loose in the centre of town where they can unleash their powers of persuasion in the stores that have forgotten how to engage us. The good news is that a new high street is emerging. ‘Stores’ as we know them are dying because they ‘store’ things and we have little interest anymore in wandering around neat and tidy warehouses. Brands, on the other hand, know they must keep us interested, entertained, educate and surprise us in order to stay on our radar and make us feel a part of something. Creatives need to focus on the exciting real world revolution that is happening out there. I call it the rise of the ‘brand playground’ and this is exactly where our bored ad execs should be playing today.