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December 9, 2010
Surely, Ads Can Still Influence Popular Culture
In a fragmented world, can advertising still get talked about on a wide scale?
If there’s one thing social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are good at, it’s spreading the news of celebrity deaths. Within minutes of learning about Leslie Nielsen’s passing a couple of weeks ago, my Facebook page and Twitter stream were flooded with “nice beaver” and other assorted lines from “Airplane” and “Naked Gun.”
At first, I thought it might be a generational thing, seeing as how most of the people I know were pretty familiar with Nielsen’s work and love to quote it. But then every news show for the next couple of days paid him a quick tribute, as if he was an acting icon of epic proportions. Nielsen was clearly part of our culture.
It then occurred to me that I don’t hear many quotable lines from recent movies anymore. Nor do I hear lots of quotes or bits from new ad campaigns seeping into the vernacular. So do we still have a mass popular culture anymore? Can advertising still pervade the culture like it used to?
There have been a few ad lines this year that I’ve heard quoted back to me – Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” the GEICO Woodchucks commercial, the DirecTV Eastern European “I jump in it” mini-giraffe-kissing mogul are the ones that spring to mind – but I wonder if they’ll have the kind of staying power like older ads did. Hell, “Where’s the Beef?” got used by Presidential candidate Walter Mondale, even if he didn’t sound like he knew what he was referencing.
But that was a long time ago, in another media era. No doubt, things are changing. The audiences are fragmented and we can more effectively target smaller groups of people. So media buys cover less territory – which we means we don’t all see the same ads and it’s harder to establish share common cultural references. And of course, we’re transitioning from sending out messages and images customers can repeat to experiences that rely on a vague description. It’s not like the old Bud Light ‘Wassup!’ Now, it’s more like, “Did you check out that Arcade Fire Google HTML 5 thing?” A cool idea, but not an instantly understandable one.
There’s also simply more to spread around. New commercials, viral videos, or web sites can get sent virally around the world nearly instantaneously. But that has two effects: First, the sheer quantity of it all diminishes its collective impact. Plus, nothing sticks around for long. A viral sensation one week is often forgotten the next.
That’s why there’s still some power when a campaign is sustained by a strong or lengthy media buy, and helped along by well-seeded PR. If it’s something likeable, or memorable, then consumers will spread it and talk about it. A complete from-the-ground-up movement doesn’t have the same pervasiveness. But there’s no doubt that large-scale mass media efforts are becoming rarer. Marketers, and in turn their agencies, have less time or patience to build a campaign that lasts longer than a year or so. Short-term thinking, intended to build short-term results, seldom lets anything seep in to our collective consciousness.
For most, advertising is disposable popular culture. But it can always be something more. We all want to do that thing – a commercial, catchphrase, tagline, viral video, game, etc., – that gets everyone talking. If the goal is no longer to make that mark on the culture, then we’ll lose something special. And we’ll lose some powerful reminders of how big an influence we can be.
Our industry is still focused on making culture and new forms of it. But as we do that, we also run the risk of making it smaller and losing our place in the popular culture. I’d love to see advertising remain something people talk about on a large scale, or something that makes the news. I’d love to see the best of our work be as beloved as a Leslie Nielsen quote, talked about long past its initial launch. We’ve got a 50/50 chance of making it happen. Though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.
But there will always be brands who aim to be a part of mass culture for years. It won’t be easy. Maybe you’re fortunate enough to be working on one of the campaigns that still have that enduring impact. If you are, well – I just want to wish you good luck. We’re all counting on you.

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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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