Advertising isn’t dead, but it was never perfectly healthy

Feb 9, 2018

There’s a popular myth right now that people have become sick of advertising.

You can’t read the business media – or other agencies’ blogs – without finding cliches like “millennials don’t engage with ads” or “today’s savvy consumers no longer trust ads.”

In reality, people never liked advertising.

The first television commercial breaks were introduced in the 1950s. Before that, companies sponsored entire programs. The idea of a “magazine format,” with different corporate promotions in between a single show, was new.

Almost immediately, people wanted to avoid these interruptions. The head of the Zenith Radio Company, a leading technology firm at the time, sensed this popular discontent.

“So he ordered Zenith’s engineers to devise a way way to give people more control over what their televisions were doing – in particular, the power to ‘tune out annoying commercials,’” Tim Wu writes in “The Attention Merchants,” a history of advertising. “He wanted, we would say, an ad-blocker.”

The result was the Zenith Flash-Matic, the first wireless remote control.

“A flash of magic light from across the room (no wires, no cords) turns set on, off, or changes channels … and you remain in your easy chair,” Zenith proclaimed. “You can also shut off long, annoying commercials while picture remains on screen!”

Zenith played this up even more by shaping the device like a gun, encouraging users to “shoot out” ads.

How effective was that message? So much so that in 1955, Zenith issued an apology – they couldn’t keep up with demand.

Long story short: advertising isn’t dead, but it also was never perfectly healthy.

In other words, people have never liked being interrupted by poorly crafted sales messages, and it has always been a good idea to be empathetic to your audience. Anyone telling you otherwise deserves to be tuned out.

This article also appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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