How Advertising Can Win

It doesn’t take too much foresight to know that the era of mass media is dying a slow death, and the era of individualized story telling is about to begin. The statistics about TV watching, shifting from network to cable to over-the-top are well-publicized. But what should the ad industry put in its place?

Twenty years into digital advertising, we have invented and honed the tools to find and follow a consumer and present her with something she (presumably) wants. That’s targeting, and it has come to represent everything unpleasant about advertising: often showing consumers the wrong product, showing them a product they have already bought, or showing them a product they have already decided not to buy.

All those are characteristics of the transition from mass media, when we all looked at the same ad, to something more individualized, and they represent near-misses in the effort at individualized messaging.

But maybe we’re on the wrong track? Maybe it is time, as the best creative directors have been saying for years, to focus on the story, and not just the target. If the story is good enough, won’t it stop a busy consumer scrolling down a feed, surfing channels, clicking through products?

The answer to that is a resounding affirmative. Instead of trying to target the consumer with a product, we must target her with stories, stories that capture attention.

We’ve been watching a child play on an iPad all week, and noticing how certain apps and stories appeal to him and stop him in his tracks as he explores the world. He may be looking for something specific, but when he sees something else more exciting he shifts his attention — to another app, another game, another story.

Consumers are the same way: they can always be attracted by something sufficiently interesting, even if they’re not the target.

To use another example, think about a traffic accidents. A traffic accident up ahead will cause the rest of the traffic to slow down, even if there is no blocked lane. Why? Because the accident is an attention-getter, a half-told story that begs the passerby to learn more. What happened? Why? Could that happen to me? No special targeting is required to make a motorist pay attention to a traffic accident — especially if it is visually shocking. The car is overturned, the car is totaled, a stretcher is brought out.

It’s the half-told story that attracts attention. No special targeting tools need be used. Although everyone may finish the story in his or her own way — the driver was drunk, the car was faulty, the driver had a heart attack — each passerby is stopped by the story.

We’re convinced that if brand stories were half as interesting as traffic accidents consumers would turn off their ad blockers just to learn more. We should take that as a challenge to re-invigorate the advertising industry.