Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is quoted as having said “Advertising is a tax you pay for having an unremarkable product”. The quote is also attributed to the founder of Geek Squad, a provider of IT support services. I can’t find an original source for the quote and it may go back much further in time. Who knows: perhaps Aristotle and Plato debated it over a refreshing jug of Ouzo in Ancient Greece. Way back before Greece was up for sale, that is.

Advertising is a tax you pay for having an unremarkable product

Here’s my very subjective view of what I think that means.

We live inside a network. We always have. A network of friends and family and colleagues and drunk Greek philosophers. We talk to each other about the things we find interesting, useful, entertaining, important etc. We’re a sociable bunch, humans, by and large (when not blowing each other up with explosives of course, or kidnapping and torturing each other in dark basements…).

Even in the 21st Century with our plethora of media, that human network STILL has the greatest influence on what we think and how we behave. And in the 21st Century, an opinion can spread like wildfire across the world in a matter of seconds.

If an organisation creates a product or service that is interesting, useful, entertaining, high quality, important, etc, people will talk about it and recommend it. The word will spread and the word will be very public. Because people trust other people MORE than they trust adverts, some will buy into it. Paying the expensive advertising tax is less necessary than it’s ever been before.

If an organisation creates a product or service that is dull or “unremarkable”, people won’t talk about it. Why should they? You’ll have to pay the expensive advertising tax to bring yourself to anyone’s attention.

If an organisation creates something utterly crap (it happens) – people definitely will talk about it. They’ll really go for it. You can’t cover that up with a snappy line or a 30 second video clip. You’ll be found out. The truth, as they say, is out there. So why bother paying the advertising tax at all?

Advertising is a tax you pay for having an unremarkable product

If your product is remarkable – for better or for worse – you needn’t pay the tax.

But what about the people on the receiving end of adverts? Specifically, people that don’t work in advertising or marketing.

We conducted some focus groups at work recently to capture reactions to some adverts and here are a few:

  • “That creative like totally speaks to my life-stage!”
  • “Hooray! I’ve actively moved from awareness to consideration!”
  • “This new brand positioning changes everything!”
  • “That viral made me LOL so hard, I think I’ll buy the car that was in it!”
  • “Where’s the call to action? I can’t find the fucking call to action!”
  • And, my favourite: “Fuck yeah I’ll join the conversation on Facebook!!!”

Of course, real people don’t say anything like that. You probably know the website these quotes come from: “Things real people don’t say about advertising”

I’d argue that advertising isn’t just a tax on the business with the unremarkable product, it’s a tax on the attention of the people. Advertising is deliberately interruptive of another activity: walking down the road (bang! adverts in my face) – reading a magazine (bang! adverts in my face) – listening to the radio (bang! adverts in my fucking ears!) – watching tv (bang! adverts in my face) – having a satisfying dump (bang! is nothing sacred?)

Is it any wonder that some people actively avoid advertising? Avoiding advertising is becoming a business model in its own right.

  • Internet Explorer used to account for 90% of all browsers. Along comes Firefox with a suite of ad-blocking features turned on by default, and it’s meteoric rise in popularity caused all other browser makers to do the same. Where is IE now?
  • Dish Network’s AutoHop DVR that auto-skips adverts
  • People will pay good money NOT to have to endure adverts in their Spotify stream.

The typical reaction to adverts is more passive though – people just ignore them – “ahh, an ad break – cup of tea darling?”. The National Grid records spikes during ad breaks due to all the people putting the kettle on.

On the internet this passive avoidance is even more pronounced. Jakob Neilsen’s group ran eye tracking studies to see what people looked at on a web page when involved in a range of tasks (from reading something in depth to skimming around looking for information). In general, people’s eyes avoided adverts subconsciously. Not only adverts, but their gaze would avoid anything advert-shaped, even if it was genuine content. Banner Blindness was the term coined. This was a long time ago but organisations still seem to enjoying paying for ineffectiveness…

So, wrapping up, if you accept that advertising is a tax you have to pay for having an unremarkable product, AND that it’s an unwelcome tax on the attention of the population, as a worker in the “Creative” Industry, what can you do?

John Willshire, ex Chief Innovation Office at PhD, puts it nicely:

Making Things People Want is greater than Making People Want Things

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