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January 12, 2012
Are the Fundamentals of Advertising Fundamental Anymore?
 
With so much change in marketing, we still need to master the basics
 
Not long ago, I worked on some print ads that ran in a very high-end luxury magazine. Once they ran, we got word back from the publication’s sales rep that the ads were “insightful and very well designed — something that we don’t see enough of in this category.”
 
What was so striking about the ads? They actually had a concept. That’s all.
 
Most of the other advertisers in the pub weren’t even trying. An actual concept is rare in print advertising these days, even in ads for high-value items catering to wealthy, seemingly intelligent customers.
 
No doubt, it takes more than simple print ads to advance a brand these days. But in a rush to keep up with technology and trends, have we simply given up on the art of perfecting the basics? Can we skip the simple concepts and go straight for complex, multi-layered ideas? Isn’t that like saying you can get laid without learning how to kiss first?
 
It’s important to note that what we call “the basics” of advertising have rarely stayed the same for too long. Just find a magazine from, say, the 70s or 80s. The print work was radically different. Even the ads for deodorant had paragraphs of small-type body copy. Then came Photoshop and the age of the visual solution ads. But too many visual solutions became open to interpretation — head-scratchers as opposed to quick reads (or maybe I’m just slow.)
 
Few people these days have time for a cerebral, copy-heavy print ad — or a visual solution that’s open to interpretation. But nowadays, the print ads don’t tell you anything and don’t sell you anything. What is left is fluff. Or badly written clichés. Or pointless imagery.
 
Why should we care about the future of print? Well, only for this reason: We have the power to ruin, or save, the quality of advertising on any medium. And we ought to be looking at any tactic as a chance to do something unusual or extraordinary.
 
If agencies can't, or won’t, do the basics right, there's little hope that they can pull off something more sophisticated. Same goes for individual creatives.
 
Unfortunately, it’s increasingly hard to pick up the average magazine and get inspired. And the traditional advertising sections of awards annuals like CA are shrinking. Learning to do a simple print ad or radio commercial is tougher when you're surrounded by so many bad examples.
 
Even digital advertising is experiencing this lifecycle as it becomes more mature. Already, some people are making pronouncements that email is dead. Well, it’s not, but it’s become ridiculously easy to create and bombard people with email offers. And even an opt-in from a consumer is no excuse to clog their inbox day after day.
 
That’s how we roll in the advertising business. We discover something that works, then we overdo it or keep it formulaic. And we start seeing diminishing returns. That goes for ad tactics like print ads, banner ads, billboards, and radio commercials or trends like crowdsourcing, flash mobs, and QR codes. The hundredth time it’s done is never as revelatory as the first time. I’ve even got a bunch of branded iPhone apps that I opened once and promptly ignored.
 
Marketers aren’t pissing money away in advertising just because it’s increasingly less effective­ — they’re pissing money away because they’re not trying to do anything persuasive or provocative. And never mind trying to start some sort of ersatz “conversation.” Most of today’s ads are deaf, dumb, and mute. Maybe that’s the way it’s always been, but with media in trouble, many are digging their own graves.
 
Unfortunately, what we’re not seeing are the media vehicles themselves insisting on more engaging work. Radio stations, TV stations, magazines, and newspapers are all too happy to get whatever revenue they can from advertisers. They’re not looking for better creative that might keep an audience interested.
 
There’ll always be a need for provocative writing, powerful imagery, and unique storytelling in marketing. But it’ll be hard to create and even harder to maintain without covering the basics. We have to learn them, practice them, and believe in them.
 
On the other hand, we may have to get used to a world where the fundamentals keep changing. Yes, it might be fun, but it also might make us all mental.
 
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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 


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