Tom Asacker was kind enough to invite me to answer some questions for the interview series he’s conducting at www.acleareye.com. I sat down to answer his question and before I knew it, I had a blog post. (I guess we’re all now blogging machines.) Here is Tom’s question and my answer, with the debate to continue at www.acleareye.com on Wednesday.
Tom Asacker’s question:
Grant. In your new book, Culture and Consumption II, you write "the consumer is an individual in a cultural context engaged in a cultural project. They are looking for small meanings, concepts of what it is to be a man or a woman, concepts of what it is to be middle aged, concepts of what it is to be a parent, concepts of what a child is and what a child is becoming, concepts of what it is to be a member of a community and a country."
You go on to say that "advertising is the preeminent meaning maker." Some would view that as a dated concept considering the level of consumer skepticism¾and perhaps cynicism¾towards advertising, the fragmentation of media, and the increasing importance of design and the customer experience on meaning-making in the marketplace. Can you speak to those trends as they relate to your premise?
Grant McCracken’s answer:
Tom, This is a great question. Advertising was once the paradigmatic meaning maker in our culture, and it’s a good idea to ask whether it remains so. Clearly, advertising did astonishing things in its time. As I show in the "cars" chapter in C&CII, it actually helped to create North American culture in the 1950s…not in that dumbed-down way preferred by intellectuals but in a way that was much substantial, genuine and, yes, authentic.
But clearly, things have changed. New media are upon us. Contemporary culture is swifter and more turbulent. Consumers have become newly participatory. They are smarter about how media works. They are more diverse internally. (There are more tastes and preferences within any given consumer.) They are more diverse externally. (There are more groups of consumers, distinguished by new principles.)
But, this just begins to tap the problem. The basic notions here, "consumer," "segment," "brand," "relationship," these are all up for grabs. Marketing academics and professionals now have to redefine, rework and reapply them.
This means the "big cannon" approach to marketing is in dispute. This said: take a simple message (aka, "the clown") and fire it at a large target (aka, "a bucket of water") as often and loudly as possible. As a guy who worked for P&G in the 1970s recently told me, "We could get 85% American householders with one week of advertising on the big three networks." USP (aka "unique selling proposition") really stood for "keep it simple, stupid." The marketer’s mantra, say it loud and say it proud, "we’re here, we’re mere, get used to it."
What we need is a "many cannons" approach: many, shifting targets and a constant, shifting cannonade. Or maybe it makes sense just to dispense with the metaphor altogether. (Military metaphors, with advertising "campaigns," approved by "captains" of industry, that make a "killing," these were always an odd way of thinking about what advertising was and now they seem particularly odd. My fellow "Coburn Change Fellow," Jerry Michalski, doesn’t even like to use the term "consumer." There’s a good chance that much of the vocabulary of marketing will change.)
The "many cannons" approach is already with us. Smart marketers are using new, more interesting messages, delivered by media that is multi and well mixed. But it’s not clear to me that the beast called advertising is dead. There is no meaning maker in the marketer’s tool kit as powerful as advertising. A TV spot can use 15 seconds to astonishing effect. It can make meanings, build relationships, construct brands at a stroke. When this is followed up by the smaller message and the more delicate interventions made possible by the new media, then we’ve really got something. But it seems to me too early to dismiss the mass media advertising instrument. I think it will be with us always.
But here’s what really bugs me. I don’t believe we have a persuasive model of how the new marketing and the new media are going to assume the "meaning management" abilities once so magnificently deployed by advertising proper. It’s a little as if we are now working with a "cheap, fast and out of control" model (Thank you, Earl Morris). There are lots of little devices at our disposal. But they are dubious, uncertain, and, most important, yet to be coordinated to big branding effects.
Everyone says the king is dead. But are we quite sure this is so? Have we got a monarch in waiting? Perhaps we should hold off on the regicide until we have a new plan for running the country.
The image above of Madison Avenue is from the Wikipedia entry on Manhattan and it was created by Lief Knutsen.