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May 22, 2008
Digitally Divided We Stand

We need to remember the people who aren’t as plugged in as we are.

I recently became acquainted with a new couple. They’re upscale, college-educated folks, both in their early 40’s. She’s a nurse and he’s a home remodeler. Successful folks by any measure. Except for one major, tragic flaw: They’re not wired.

They barely use email, don’t use the Internet much, and needed me to help them hook an iPod up to their stereo and load their digital camera’s pictures onto their computers.

It’s not that they wore their technological ignorance on their sleeves; rather, they were perfectly happy living their lives without the Internet and Web 2.0 and new media. To them, a “Twitter feed” means a bag of birdseed.

I couldn’t believe it. How do they survive? I mean, my life, and my work in advertising, is so centered around technology that I can’t function much without it. Yet there are millions of people who do just fine without it. And yes, they’re our clients’ customers, too.

When I hear talk of a “digital divide,” the discussion centers around rich vs. poor, or urban/connected vs. rural/off the grid. I’m not sure that’s as true as it may have been a few years ago. Rather, there are occupations, lifestyles, and personal preferences that enable a person to say, “I don’t need all this technology to live my life.”

We need to keep in mind that there are still some jobs that don’t keep people chained to a desk and a computer all day. And they’re not all bricklayers or short-order cooks.

The same things we find so engaging about the web and other new technologies are the things others find so constricting--complexity, cost, incessancy, and the feeling of enslavement it all induces. Sometimes it gets to me, too. How did my wireless Internet connection become a leash?

I suppose it’s a hazard of the job. It’s very easy to get seduced by technology. The ad industry is always in search of the newest new thing. And clients are clamoring for whatever new gimmick they just read about in the Wall Street Journal. I have a client that says “do it in Flash” so much he probably shouts it when he’s getting laid.

In the rush to embrace the new, however, we can’t forget the old. No, we’re not going to be turning back the clock--not in our society or the advertising industry. But we need to recognize that reaching consumers on their own terms is always going to involve a whole host of methods—including such ancient ideas as radio and billboards and printed pieces of paper. And that powerful ideas, with arresting images and provocative words, are still going to be what move people to buy products. Unfortunately, as the new media gold rush spurs innovation, old media is risks becoming a dumping ground of bullet points, sale announcements and trite product features.

Where the advertising industry gets into trouble is when clients spread their marketing across a bunch of agencies who rarely communicate with one another. The notion of reaching consumers at “every touchpoint” becomes an exercise in futility if you (or your agency) only touch one or two points. Because ideally, we ought to be caring about the whole, not just our slice, no matter what part of the business we work on. Can we care about the people who don’t have internet or check their email? Conversely, can we also care about the ones who want to receive text message coupons?

I think it's possible for advertising people to keep a foot on both sides of the digital divide. Because that's where consumers are. And my new friends are doing just fine without all this technology. Maybe they’re an increasingly rare breed. But it’s still important to remember the people on the other side of the digital divide. Perhaps all the money they don’t spend on ISP service, laptops, and other technology is spent on your client’s products.

They’re out there. They’re reachable. But occasionally, we might have to unplug ourselves first, so we can think like they do.

Now, if someone can just text my iPhone, e-mail me, or Facebook me and tell me how to unplug myself, I’ll be set.

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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. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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