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Why Traditional Interruption-Based Advertising Doesn’t Work Anymore

Traditional advertising doesn't work well anymore for a very simple reason - there's too much of it. There are too many companies interrupting consumers to try and sell them something. There's so much ad clutter and noise today that studies have shown the “majority of consumers would boycott companies that bother them with too much advertising.”

In addition, techonolgy provides consumers with every manner of “ad blockers” including TiVo, VCRs, DVRs and DVD recorders, to cable and satellite TV, to MP3 players and downloadable music, and now satellite radio. Consumers are paying billions to AVOID ADVERTISING, which is why they like it even less if you somehow manage to break through and interrupt what they are doing.

Here are some statistics and below are some quotes from the leading advertising and marketing experts who all agree that traditional “interruption-based advertising” has lost its effectiveness and their individual views on the reasons why. And here is why, despite the lack of effectiveness, traditional advertising won't be going away soon.



"The era of marketing as we have known it is over, dead, kaput - and most marketers don't realize it.

"Mass advertising has lost its ability to move the masses. Technology has given people many more options than they had in the past and created a consumer democracy. Everybody has a thousand choices for any product they might want to buy, and there are a million different products competing for their wallets. So marketers increasingly need to find ways to speak to customers individually, or in smaller and smaller groups. With so many choices, each customer has many factors that weight in his or her decisions, so marketers have to find the reasons that speak to particular customers' concerns. Old-style, one-size-fits-all mass marketing can't do this.

"Because old marketing isn't working, every year, earlier and earlier in the marketing year, people are admitting defeat and falling back on ‘Plan B,’ which is, of course, price promotion. Price promotion is definitely on the rise, and the cost of it is going up. That's because when everyone is cutting prices, you have to cut yours even more. The sale that cost you a dime to get three years ago, now costs a quarter, and still, all you are getting is rented volume that is going away as soon as you stop paying for it.

"Every day you can turn to the newspaper's business pages and learn that another company has succeeded to death. It has sold a lot of stuff and gone broke in the process.

Sergio Zyman, former Chief Marketing Officer, Coca Cola

The End of Marketing As We Know It. New York: HarperBusiness, 1999.



"Marketing as we know it is disappearing.

Regis McKenna

Total Access. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.



"With the customer hunkered down in his or her mental foxhole, it becomes harder and harder to score a hit in our overcommunicated society. With volume up and effectiveness down, advertising has become the focus of intensive research.


"Consider the facts. Most major advertising programs that run are tested. They don't run if they don't test exceptionally well.


"Yet most advertising is ineffective. Mathematically, that has to be true. In a given market four or five brands will develop marketing programs designed to increase market share. Yet on average, no one will increase market share, which in total remains at 100 percent.


Al Ries and Jack Trout

Bottom-Up Marketing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. pages 152, 154, 194, 195.



"The incredible plethora of choices consumers now possess has a downside, and it's called exhaustion. An overwhelming number of possibilities complicates every buying decision. Add to that all the other more baroque aspects of modern life, such as two-income households, frequent divorce and remarriage and blending of families, increasing traffic, shortening news cycles, and 100 channels of cable television, and you wind up with a consumer group that feels very over loaded and harassed.


"It's a paradox: The more brands consumers have to choose from, the more they need to cling to one good brand.


"Good brands do three highly significant things for stressed-out consumers:

1.      They save time.

2.      They project the right message

3.      They provide an identity.


David F. D'Alessandro, CEO John Hancock

Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. page 18.



"The per-capita consumption of advertising in America today (1996) is $376.62 a year. (That compares with $16.87 in the rest of the world.)


"If you spend $1 million a year on advertising, you are bombarding the average consumer with less than a half cent of advertising, spread over 365 days to a consumer already exposed to $376.61 ½ worth of other advertising.


Al Ries and Jack Trout

Positioning, the Battle for Your Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. page 6.



"In 1971 the average American was exposed to at least 560 advertisements per day and twenty years later that number topped 3,000. It is estimated that the average high school graduate will have watched over 22,000 hours of television.

David Shenk

Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. New York: HarperCollins Books, 1998.



"Each day, marketers expose Americans to some 12 billion display ads, 3 million radio ads, and more than 300,000 television commercials. The unsolicited electronic junk mail known as 'spam' now constitutes some 10 percent of all worldwide e-mail. The average U.S. consumer receives roughly 1 million marketing messages a year across all media, or about 3,000 messages per day.


John Hagel III and Marc Singer

Net Worth. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999.



"Every day you’re exposed to more than four hours of media. Most of it is optimized to interrupt what you’re doing. And it’s getting increasingly harder and harder to find a little peace and quiet…The ironic thing is that marketers have responded to this problem with the single worst cure possible. To deal with the clutter and the diminished effectiveness of Interruption Marketing, they’re interrupting us even more!

"That’s right. Over the last thirty years advertisers have dramatically increased their ad spending. They’ve also increased the noise level of their ads - more jump cuts, more in-your-face techniques - and searched everywhere for new ways to interrupt your day.

"It’s estimated that the average consumer sees about one million marketing messages a year - about 3,000 a day…That may seem like a lot, but one trip to the supermarket alone can expose you to more than 10,000 marketing messages! An hour of television might deliver forty or more, while an issue of the newspaper might have as many as one hundred. Add to that all the logos, wallboards, junk mail, catalogs, and unsolicited phone calls you have to process every day, and it’s pretty easy to hit that number.

"There is one critical resource, though, that is in chronically short supply. Bill Gates has just as much as you do. And even Warren Buffet can’t buy more. That scarce resource is time. And in light of today’s information glut, that means there’s a vast shortage of attention.

"This combined shortage of time and attention is unique in today’s information age. Consumers are now willing to pay handsomely to save time, while marketers are eager to pay bundles to get attention.

"Interruption Marketing is the enemy of anyone trying to save time. By constantly interrupting what we are doing at any given moment, the marketer who interrupts us not only tends to fail at selling his product, but wastes our most coveted commodity, time. In the long run, therefore, Interruption Marketing is doomed as a mass marketing tool. The cost to the consumer is just too high.

Seth Godin

Permission Marketing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.



"According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the average length of time a client stays with an agency declined more than 25 percent between 1985 and 1997, from 7.2 to 5.3 years.

David F. D'Alessandro, CEO John Hancock

Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand.. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. page 55.



"What ‘work' does advertising do and how well does it do it? Aside from comforting purchasers by assuring them they made the right choice, aside from comforting CEOs and employees that their work is important, and aside from certain unpredictable short-term increases in consumption, most advertising does not perform as advertised. Take away the tax deductions that corporations get for advertising, and most expenditures would dry up overnight.

Although elaborate proofs of advertising’s impotence are available, the simple fact is that you cannot put a meter on the relationship between increased advertising and increased sales. If you could, (ad) agencies would charge by how much they have increased sales, not by how much media space they have purchased.

Neil H. Borden of the Harvard Business School first demonstrated the inconclusiveness of most advertising in his definitive work, The Economic Effects of Advertising (1942), and Michael Schudson reconfirmed Borden's thesis in 1984 in Advertising: The Uneasy Profession.


James B. Twitchel

Adcult USA. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. page 109



"Since 1965, the average news sound bite has shrunk from 42 seconds to just 8. The average network TV ad has shrunk from 53 seconds to 25. Fifteen-second ads are now commonplace, and three-second ads are on the rise. Multitasking is in. Downtime is out.


U.S. News & World Report, March 26, 2001.



The Consumer Isn't

If Consumerism was a brand, we would say that the person on the street has developed significantly different usage, attitudes, and behavior toward that brand over the last three decades – and yet the vocabulary we still use to talk about it remains essentially unchanged. The old underlying structure and concepts that we still refer to implicitly every time we use words like consumer and audience and category are thus now left fundamentally flawed. These were concepts, after all, coined at the beginning of the packaged goods mass market, when families watched television together and being a consumer meant something because – certainly in the United States – consumerism was embraced by the general public as a healthy sign of being a part of, or aspiring to, the middle class. But although our vocabulary fails to acknowledge it, the world is very different today. Consider what has happened to just those three basic concepts – audience, consumer, and category – over the last 30 years.


The Audience Isn't

Much has been written about consumer's sense of stress today, to the point of it becoming a cliché. But the fact that is has become a cliché should not blind us to the fact that it is profoundly true and is having considerable effect on the way that consumers interact with marketing activities, communications and ideas. One of the most important shifts that has resulted from our point of view is the relationship that people are looking from in the media they use.


In a 1994 poll, 94% of all American adults stated that a primary use of their free time was to recuperate from work. If true, this is one of the most important pieces of marketing data to have emerged in recent years, and it describes a profound shift in the way consumers use one of the principle marketing tools at our disposal, namely television. It implies that there has been a profound shift in our society, from a work/leisure society (i.e., one that self-consciously divides itself between two basic types of activity, work or leisure) to one that divides its time between three: a work/recuperation/leisure society.


Why is this important to us? Because recuperation is a very different thing from leisure. You use recuperation time in a different way, looking for different kinds of experiences. The figure following shows how television has subsumed all other activities as a recuperative activity over recent years.


Note how significantly the gap has widened. Now, one might argue that in a stressed world, television has subsumed all other activities precisely because it is not an activity – it is passive, a "vegging out. But it is more than this – if we think of it as active recuperation. Of those who saw recuperation as a primary function of their leisure time, 75% did not even classify watching television as leisure. For them, it has become necessary therapy. (figure 2.1)


Figure 2.1

What activities are the one that you usually enjoy or look forward to during a day?

Watching Television
Checking the Mail
Going to Sleep
Taking Shower/Bath
Getting in the House
Making Love

*Not Asked
Source: Roper 1997


Look at yourself. Exhaustion is, in every sense, a great leveler. At a very profound level the consumer is yourself on a Thursday night after a tough four days. What kind of advertising do you want to watch? The answer, of course, is none at all. At nine o'clock on a Thursday night, all you want to do is escape a little. Relax. Eat peanuts and scratch your stomach.


It is not simply a question of boredom thresholds or tolerance levels decreasing – even in serious relationships (with a local divorce rate running at 68%, one county in the Midwest is considering compulsory prenuptial counseling before granting a marriage license). It is a question of the pace at which we live profoundly impacting quite basic levels of human need. We live in a world in which 10 years ago the average American said they have six close friends; today they say they only have four. We live in a world in which companies are monitoring the amount of bathroom tissue that is used to demonstrate that people go to the bathroom less often when they are working more intensely. So if man, a social animal with physical needs, is cutting down on both those basic requirements in order to get through the day, what slack are they going to cut us marketers? In this context, when their prime evening motivation is recuperation and escape, advertisers have moved beyond being clutter. They are no longer in the communication business, they are in a new kind of business altogether: The Nuisance Business.


Which means that the audience is not an audience. To call them an audience presupposes they are listening. In fact, we, the brand, are merely one of the three or four acts that are on stage simultaneously, each vying for the attention of the potential audience. Children, conversation with one's partner, food, magazines – video research of the consumer "watching television shows that they are anything but a captive audience, even when the programming is on. One study suggested that 23% of U.S. golf programming plays to an empty room. And their attention to advertising is getting even more selective. (figure 2.2)


Figure 2.2

Adult evening viewers able to name a brand or product advertised in show just seen: no prompt.

Can’t Name Any %
Can Name %
Name in Other Show%
Source: Newspaper Advertising Bureau


And this in turn, of course, is because they pay even less attention to the advertising than they do to some of the programming. (figure 2.3)

Figure 2.3


Viewer's response to commercial break

Stimulated channel change
Muted commercial
Ignored commercial
Alternating attention
Attended to commercial
Source: American Academy of Advertising


Audience, then, although it is a word that is used almost interchangeably to refer to our target, is fundamentally flawed. Our target is not an audience, for that would presuppose they were watching or listening. While it may have more usefully described our target at the beginning of the intersection of mass marketing and television (and even that is arguable), it certainly does not do so now. The audience isn’t.


The Consumer Isn't

Implicit in the idea of a consumer is someone who is engaged in an activity – namely consuming. Basking in this, as marketers we eagerly add rational information for them to absorb and inform themselves with our packaging, brochures, in-store material, and direct mail. Don't put it in the body copy, we say, confidently – we’ll get our consumers to pick it up in the nutritional information.


In fact, consumption of anything other than the product itself is passive at best, and with very rare exceptions, it is centered around the actual moment of purchase or use – people don’t have the energy or inclination to be continuously engaged with regard to a product. They are simply using your product and getting on with their lives. In most cases, the smaller the interaction – the less they have to react – the better. There is evidence to suggest that people want less nutritional claims, less choice, less information to have to deal with in the things they buy every day.

Adam Morgan
Eating the Big Fish, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

(page 1)
But 30-second ads are only a tiny part of this book, and, more important, they’re only a tiny part of what advertising today is all about. Unfortunately, not enough people understand that advertising encompasses communication of all kinds, which is the whole reason why advertising, as you know it, is dead.

It doesn’t work, it’s a colossal waste of money, and if you don’t wise up, it could end up destroying your company (or your client’s companies) and your brand.

(page 79)
We know that different customers require different media approaches. (After all you can’t use a bass lure to catch trout.) But traditionally advertisers and their agencies took the shotgun approach - hitting as many people as possible regardless of whether they were potential customers. Or, if you want to keep going with this fish thing, we could say that this traditional approach is kind of like dropping dynamite into a lake and blasting as many fish out of the water as possible regardless of whether they’re edible.

Of course, the shotgun (or dynamite) approach sounded too crass, so advertising people switched to terms such as reach and frequency, which are basically the same as dynamite, anyway. Advertising goals were set as reaching x percent of the population y number of times each month (or week or day or whatever) - still pretty indiscriminate.

That approach obviously wasn’t going to work for everyone. So the next trend was continuity, which was basically a variation on the reach-and-frequency method. Continuity was based on the idea that if you want people to buy something, you have to reach them every day. So the metric became how often you could reach people.

Continuity didn’t work, either. Finally, someone spent a little time analyzing customers and their behavior, eventually figuring out that content and placement were really the most important factors of all - that what you say and where you say it are more important that how many people you say it to.

Sergio Zyman with Armin Brott

The End of Advertising As We Know It, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.

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