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Know the Message in Your Medium

I have been following Sony BMG’s advertising campaign for the 25th anniversary of the Thriller album with a great deal of interest. I think it’s a brilliant marketing effort. In case you’ve missed it, Sony BMG has melded new marketing media and traditional marketing media to introduce a remake of the highest selling album of all time. The company has a particular challenge in introducing the remake of the album. The average consumer thinks Michael Jackson is a freak at best and a pederast at worst, and Jackson’s financial challenges can be credited in part with Americans’ faint disgust with him as a human being. The music world still considers Jackson to be a genius, but while they regularly incorporate his work in their own work – either directly or through significant inspiration – that influence is less obvious to the public. So the typical approaches to a 25th anniversary album – a tour, appearances on all the talk shows, etc. – were not an option. So in a brilliant display of their understanding of new media options, the company challenged professional dancers to perform Thriller’s zombie dance in public venues from London’s Chinatown to Cophenhagen’s busiest train terminal. In each case, the audience for the dancers was 100 people or less. But every performance was posted on YouTube, and the videos have been downloaded nearly 1.5 million times so far. Every YouTube viewer of a Thriller promo is also exposed to the Michael Jackson YouTube site, where a promotion of the 25th anniversary album has been viewed over 600,000 times. The story received so much viral play that it was picked up by the New York Times and other major papers. In the first week of release the new album rocketed into the number one spot on Billboard’s Top Pop chart and placed in top five or better rankings in music markets around the world.

Marketing continues to change. Today’s marketers absolutely must understand not only what these marketing tools are and how to use them, but also the social implications of the new marketing tools. A reflection on the recent history of marketing and its evolution over the past 60 years helps illustrate this point.

Marketers who came of age in the 1940s – 1960s were selling to a very different consumer than are the marketers of today. From a social standpoint, there was little deviation from what was deemed conventional behavior, and deep social conformity led to conformity of taste and product usage. This was reinforced commercially, because product differentiation was expensive to achieve. Individuation of taste and access to unique products was reserved for the wealthy. From the marketer’s perspective, the communication venues were limited (though significantly expanded from prior decades). Print, radio, and television were the primary means of reaching consumers, and all three mediums were focused on addressing mass audiences. This led to programming and advertising that was overwhelmingly homogeneous. How were the major social issues of the time influenced by the dramatic rise of the television as a communication medium during those years?

The 1960s-1990s saw dramatic change in cultural and social tastes reflective of the nonconformist predilections of baby boomers. Not surprisingly, direct marketing came of age during this time, bringing to a society that was still treated homogeneously by mass media a refreshing ability to cater to diverse tastes and interests. By the 1980s cable television ushered in the segmentation of America on a large scale, replacing the big three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and their virtually indistinguishable programming perspectives with literally hundreds of alternatives – many of them geared to comparatively tiny segments of the population. Cable television was the gateway to today’s internet world – a world in which consumers take for granted the expectation that they can control the content they consume. The PC revolution was aided by the launch of Compuserve and AOL, delivering the ability to customize a media content experience. From that point it was a small leap for customers to begin to expect they could also control the marketing messages to which they were exposed.

Today’s marketer faces a complex array of marketing choices. Email, wikis, social networking, personalized search, user-generated content, blogs, streaming video, vertical search engines, targeted communities, web enabled phones, location-based services and mobile search, participatory advertising, RSS, and VOIP are all new tools in the marketer’s toolbox.

Marketing is simply the business of communication. The proper definition of communication involves two or more parties. Traditional approaches to marketing, limited by the technology and social perspectives of their times, reduced marketing to a one-way method. Today’s marketers have the opportunity to embrace genuine communication with their customers. And this opportunity comes with a significant learning curve. But the learning curve is somewhat more than the average marketer may be realizing. Yes, a big part of the learning curve is simply mastering all these new tools – remembering your log-ins for the different services, and figuring out how to use them, which customers are attracted to them, and what purpose they serve. But in fact, those things are the easiest part of the learning equation.

Remember the book – and the saying – the medium is the message? Marshall McLuhan, author of the saying and of the 1964 book of the same name, theorized that every message is not only influenced, but defined, by the medium by which the message is delivered. McLuhan died in 1980, before any of these new digital marketing mediums were possible, let alone conceived of. Yet his work is as relevant today as it was back when he was worried about the ultimate social impact of the television. McLuhan argued that at the intelligent, rational levels of perception, human beings take a message and consider its content carefully. However, at the empirical – experiential – level of consciousness, the medium itself is the message.

As we have discussed numerous other times in these columns, humans are not all that skilled at critical thinking. When you consider this disjunction between intended content and medium, it’s not hard to understand why young females suffer from a variety of eating disorders, young males begin to suspect that their role in life is to be sexy and adolescent for ever, or young children find it difficult to differentiate between cartoons and real life. The subtext of every advertisement is at least as powerful – and sometimes more powerful – than the intended content.

Maybe Sony BMG stumbled into this idea through sheer luck, but I prefer to believe they carefully considered all the aspects of this challenging marketing situation. They took the product of a once-great but now sullied star and removed the taint. By highlighting the creativity, gumption, and sheer fun of young people with talent providing impromptu performances in public places, Sony BMG created focus on the music, how it made us feel in 1983 when we first heard it, and how it still makes us feel today.

Marketers today would be well-advised to expand their thinking well beyond the typical questions of features and benefits of products and services. Features and benefits continue to be of significant importance, but they are only the starting point. Marketers must also consider the mediums that are most relevant for the delivery of the message. That evaluation needs to be expanded beyond the questions of who is using this medium and what is the expense of using this medium. The evaluation also needs to include an assessment of how the medium itself influences the message – both from a message efficacy standpoint and from an ethical standpoint.

Sound complicated? No more so than when McLuhan first started publicly exploring these ideas in 1951, in his book The Mechanical Bride. Society may seem more complicated to us now, but it seemed plenty complicated
to those who were our age in the 50s and 60s. And though we may be the first generations to experience the explosion of digital marketing, I daresay the rise of radio and television felt every bit as earth shaking in their time. At the end of the day, marketing is a social effort, informed (hopefully) by history, and both defined by and defining of current cultural norms. When marketing is approached with respect for all the disciplines involved – analytics, verbal and graphic arts, psychology, sociology, and ethics – it can be a resoundingly satisfying career choice.

(c) 2008. Andrea M. Hill

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