Advertising is an Emotional Art

Twitter’s Biz Stone blogged yesteray that Twitter wasn’t interested in banner ads. Undeterred, TechCrunch immediately reported that Twitter would still undoubtedly focus on ads, perhaps of another sort.

It was a curious response to what may be a titanic shift in how advertising works. Twitter seems ready to depart from the business model of every Internet media giant that preceded it, including AOL, Yahoo, Google and Facebook, which comes as news that many folks who are deeply invested in current media models just don’t want to hear.

Rather than inserting ads into, above or alongside the stream of authentic consumer voices, Twitter seems likely to charge its clients for being able to monitor and channel that stream. As Biz explains, “facilitating connections between businesses and individuals in meaningful and relevant ways is compelling.” Imagine, for example, a stream of tweets about how great Redfin is that Twitter would associate with the Redfin keyword or that we would integrate into our own site. Redfin would pay for that.

But we’d never pay for traditional ads on Twitter. The whole idea behind many ads — drawing me to a site with A then forcing me to sit through B — doesn’t work in a world where the consumer increasingly controls when and how he consumes media. It’s too easy just to skip ahead via Tivo or install an ad-blocker in Firefox. And even if I see the ad, many ads just don’t compete with the truth very well these days, which on a Yelp or Avvo now often appears right alongside the ad.

Subjective and Objective, Together for the First Time
Ten years ago, in the absence of reviews from people who seemed just like me, ads once held enormous sway on my purchasing decisions. Sure I could have looked at Consumer Reports, if I really needed someone else to tell me to buy sensible shoes. But even Consumer Reports never had the temerity to put the objective and subjective alongside one another. What’s the point of buying an ad when your product already had the highest rating? Or the lowest? This is the problem that all review sites — that the Internet itself — has to solve. It’s hard to be a truth-teller and an advertiser all in one place.

This is not to say that advertising is dead, only that it has to evolve into a more subtle, emotional medium. What matters isn’t the reach or frequency of a media purchase but the ability of an ad to communicate at an almost atavistic level. Geoffrey Miller, a University of New Mexico professor who recently published “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior,” argues that most marketers don’t know how to speak to the primitive brain’s true needs for prestige and better breeding opportunities. These are feelings beyond the dispute of a review or a Google search.

Focusing on Feelings, not Demographics
It seems like Professor Miller understands better than Madison Avenue why some ads lodge in our consciousness. Rather than slicing and dicing consumers into traditional demographic buckets based on age and income, Miller encourages advertisers to think in terms of how a product expresses the traits evolution has programmed us to value: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

The photo-editing website Picnik is a perfect example of this emotional sensitivity; while the Flash application loads, the site talks about “buttering the bread” and “warming the breeze” for a picnic. And that’s what I like most about the site, is how its silly little progress bar makes me feel, which is overwhelmingly agreeable.  I wish Redfin as a website was that emotionally coherent.

Internet marketing in particular, and ads in general, have enormous power to make us feel. Some of the last things I will ever forget aren’t leaving home for college or driving a U-Haul out of San Francisco, but a cloying jingle like “ring around the collar,” which gave me one of my first intimations of the most powerful human emotion, shame.

It seems obvious that the most effective ads are involved in the formation of our personality, in large part because we re-broadcast those ads as an expression of ourselves. If you’ve ever listened to adolescent boys talk to one another, you know what I’m talking about: their entire conversation is an exchange of  ad jingles and movie lines. Twenty years later, I’m not much different. I’ve watched the exquisite Sony Bravia ad 40 or 50 times (only later to discover that its soundtrack was once my mother’s favorite song).  sony-bravia-play-doh-rabbits

As Google AdSense and its analogs in television and display advertising, Spotrunner and AdReady, have lowered the cost of placing an ad, we shouldn’t forget what really makes an ad powerful, which is the quality of the ad itself. There’s a reason why a television ad costs more to produce per frame than even the most elaborate special effects movie, which is just another way of saying it is more finely worked as a piece of art than many pieces of actual art.

Already using YouTube, an ad is distributed more by people who love the ad than by the media giants who are supposed to be cramming it down our throats. It seems like advertising needs to use pleasure rather than force, activity rather than passivity, focusing on what we want to see and interact with, channeling what we ourselves have said or wish we could say, rather than on the old blunt instruments of display advertising, intrusiveness and repetition. The Internet seems better suited to address this problem than any other medium, but we have to be awake to it.

I’m glad Biz Stone is.


  • James

    There is no doubt that emotive advertising is here to stay. If you can get in people’s minds, you have won half the battle. Of course, a great product has to be available, too.

    Keep up the good work!