While technology has not been kind to traditional advertisers, next week's launch of Apple's iPad offers an immense opportunity. Big brand names like FedEx and Chase have bought much of the ad inventory for the next few months. I wonder if they're going to make proper use of it.
It's an obvious buy from the perspective of eyeballs and buzz. Not only will the gizmo sell in the hundreds of thousands, but there'll be many, many more watching it work over friends' shoulders, or testing the things in-store. Early-adopters of expensive stuff are highly attractive to marketers. Add in the media hype that'll surround the first few weeks and you have a bonanza for traditional advertisers: a qualified, inspired audience staring at your commercials. Granted, it's only a fraction of the folks reached by traditional TV spots but the logic is familiar (and accordingly comfortable, hence the big spends).
Only the logic's wrong, isn't it?
I've long believed that the problem facing advertisers has never been about medium or channel, but rather the meaning, relevance, and utility of the content. Context matters -- it always did, only it used to be simpler, less conflicted, and thus easier to address almost intuitively -- so I'd change Marshall McLuhan's famous quote: the message still is the message, only you have to take into account the delivery media and the qualities of the consumption experience. Maybe a more relevant quotable quote for understanding this equation would be from architecture: form follows function.
Advertisers, especially those experimenting with new media, have got this equation mostly wrong, or simply avoided trying to make its variables add up to anything meaningful to businesses. This is why there's so much "branded content" that successfully absorbs consumers' time without telling them anything useful or, conversely, why we see bumper ads in online video programming that mimic the nuisance interruptions of broadcast TV.
One approach gives up any pretense of utility in lieu of the presumption that happily wasting peoples' time will benefit brands, while the other treats the media as simply insert channels through which brands should say whatever they choose to say about, well, brands. Both are wrong, and they evidence the sad fact that much of the pain for advertising agencies these days is self-inflicted.
But back to iPad.
I think the iPad offers an immense opportunity to do things different (yes, that was an iPun). I'm sure we'll see ads that exploit the immense technology coolness of its screen, and some of them will be quite funny. But there are at least three qualities that could differentiate standard operating procedure approaches from some truly game-changer experimentation:
- Context as content. What if ads addressed the unique moment(s) of new user experiences instead of blathering on about brands? Chase's Sapphire credit card has bought out two months' of ad units on the New York Times so why not fill the space with content that is meaningful, relevant, and useful to those readers? It could launch an article series that complements the Times' text. Ad creative could acknowledge the first-timeness of iPad users...maybe offer games or surveys linked to their usage? How about an ad as a doorway to a social media community that will rate/discuss the day’s news headlines? I'd assume greater ad minds than mine could come up with much better ideas, but one thing I know is certain: if the Sapphire ads are about Sapphire -- i.e. they could have appeared on any other online or offline media -- then all Chase will accomplish is extend its misunderstanding of advertising to a new outlet.
- Ads as apps. Imagine going one step further and approaching ad space as if it were an application? I'm not suggesting writing software, per se, but simply giving paid commercial speech the obvious utility users expect from pushing those little virtual buttons. FedEx has bought space on apps that will be retailed by Reuters and Newsweek; why couldn't it offer some utilitarian prompt, like "check today's drop off deadline," or "schedule a package pickup?" I know, I know, it sounds boring but doing something is far more compelling and reliable than just saying it. It would be amazing if iPad ads generally did things differently than ads on other media; my hunch is that perceptions of value would emerge more from providing value than from describing it.
- Co-sell experience. The ad-supported publishing business is dead, and no pretty, colorful technology invention is going to revive it. Putting ads next to articles is old thinking and almost dares readers to realize that one has no connection to the other; worse, I think people see this disconnect and find it jarring or, worst of all, just ignore the ads entirely (just see how long before the first iPad ad filter software comes out). So why not consciously and purposefully link the two? Capital One, Buick, and Oracle have bought space on the Wall Street Journal's $17.99/mo. app, so why wouldn’t they co-fund subscriptions ("subscribe now and Oracle will give you your first month for free")? There could be lots of follow-on collaborations that redefined the ad/content relationship. Who cares if this audience is much smaller than the eyeballs available on TV once upon a time? Get them to do things and they're potentially worth more.
OK, so I don't expect that much creative experimentation will occur in the short-term, but still I am hopeful. The iPad offers immense opportunities to stop tinkering with the mechanism of advertising, embrace the ultimate purpose of doing it (i.e. sell stuff), and come up with novel ways to use the real estate on it (and on all mobile devices).
It's time to change the game.