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Seeking Permission to Clear Clutter

Apr 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Matthew Creamer, Advertising Age

Somewhere between 254 and 5,000 is a number that represents how many commercial messages an average consumer gets each day.

There’s no consensus on it, but just about everyone agrees on two things: It’s way too high, and the industry’s not doing anything to reduce its own overproduction.

That’s our clutter problem—and yours.

The ad industry is trying to fix the problem by doing more of the same—that is, by creating more ads. That absurdly cliched mission statement of “cutting through the clutter” has yielded an industry that shotguns commercial messages into sexy new places as quickly as it can identify them, whether emerging digital platforms or nooks and crannies in an increasingly buyable physical world — dry-cleaning bags, coffee cups, even houses. Yes, clutter is leading to more clutter.

But, you say, at least it’s paring back on traditional media, right? Actually, TV commercial pods are fatter than they’ve ever been, and they’re growing like a 14-year-old Xbox fan’s waistline.

Put simply, the ad business is crushing itself under the weight of its own messaging, squeezing the effectiveness out of its product as consumers grow inured to the commercialization of their culture and surroundings.

Clutter’s not the only issue—things like media multitasking and ad-skipping devices play roles. But it is the elephant in the room.

“We could discuss any topic in media and there would some room for debate,” said Debbie Solomon, group research director at WPP Group’s MindShare and author of its annual study on increased TV commercial time. “But not with clutter. Every study I’ve ever seen shows that it’s a bad thing.”

So if clutter’s such a problem, why isn’t there a clear, unified way of figuring out how to reduce it? A big reason is that clutter is usually viewed through the lenses of individual media, a way of looking that makes a bit of sense given that clutter affects each medium differently.

Research shows a magazine reader looks at glossy ad pages rather favorably, as part of the editorial content, while a TV viewer is more likely to see 30-second spots as interruptions. Between those poles fall Internet users, who are simultaneously hit with both scads of generic, untargeted ads and more finely tuned pitches that take into account behavior that gives some semblance of relevance to ads.

Perhaps the greatest risk for a new avalanche of commercial content lies in mobile marketing. Hailed as one of advertising’s great growth areas, it hasn’t really taken off, partly because the jury’s still out on how receptive consumers are to ad messages on their phones.

In the end, permission marketing may be advertisers’ best bet for gaining acceptance in emerging media that don’t come with social contracts of the kind that has governed, say, the TV business for so long — that is, viewers’ tacit willingness to put up with ads because that revenue’s underwriting the programming they enjoy.

“Anytime there’s a new destination for people, like YouTube or mobile phones, the assumption is we’ve got to find a way to put some ads there,” said Bob Barocci, president-CEO of the Advertising Research Foundation. “That’s just going to make things worse because there’s no social contract. If mobile-phone companies say, ‘We’ll reduce your bill if you accept ads,’ then that’s a contract and that’s smart.”

Abbey Klaassen contributed to this report.