Advertising’s Hidden Design and Its Impact on Our Culture Advertising's Hidden Design and Its Impact on Our Culture

Media shapes everything, influencing expectations, conversations, and culture.

But what fuels the media? Ads.

There are two main types: brand ads and direct ads. Brand ads are the broadly seen, often unmeasurable ads, such as billboards, TV commercials, and imprinted mugs. Direct ads, in contrast, are action-oriented and measurable, including infomercials, mail order catalogs, and various digital media.

Brand marketing requires courage. For example, the return on a $75,000 investment in a full-page ad in the New Yorker or a $3 million Super Bowl commercial is uncertain. Brand marketers focus on culture rather than metrics.

Direct marketing, on the other hand, is all about the numbers. It’s about the yield on classified ads, discount code usage, and click counts.

The challenge with new media lies in the confusion between brand ads and direct ads. Media companies and advertisers often struggle to differentiate between the two.

Initially, brand marketers tend to pioneer new media forms, investing in banner ads, podcast ads, or Facebook ads, aiming to reach early adopters. For instance, many companies benefit significantly from sponsoring influencers and streamers, even if they can’t measure the ads’ impact precisely.

Direct marketers, who always have budgets for self-sustaining ads, soon follow. They prioritize response over the medium itself, creating tension between media quality and measurable clicks.

Effective direct marketing advertising is permission-based, with ads as the focal point. Examples include classified ads, Craigslist, catalogs, Sunday paper coupons, Yellow Pages, and Google AdWords. These ads are missed if absent and are highly measurable.

Conversely, the best brand media—podcasts, newscasts, blogs, and magazines—inform and entertain independently of the ads. The ads support the business model without driving the content.

Actionable Steps for Media Companies and Advertisers

For Media Companies:

  1. Aspire to attract brand marketers by not prioritizing clicks. Direct marketers may push for highly clickable ads, but a focus on short-term yield can undermine long-term media quality. Avoid overloading with pop-ups to maintain trust and respect.

For Advertisers:

  1. Clearly define the purpose of the ads. Measuring clicks isn’t always necessary. The middle ground between direct and brand advertising often leads to disappointment for both advertisers and media companies.

The Challenge

For Media Companies:

  1. When seeking advertising, resist pressure from direct marketers to prioritize short-term gains over long-term reputation. Direct marketers seek immediate results and will switch to a better-yielding platform without regard for long-term relationships.

For Direct Marketers:

  1. Avoid making ads more palatable to brand marketers, as this can dilute effectiveness. Direct marketing success lies in measurable yield, not cultural embrace.

The media shaping our culture wasn’t designed for or by direct marketers. With digital media becoming increasingly influential, the trend of media companies catering to direct marketers is concerning and often mismatched.

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