The Death of Advertising? Not Quite

By Todd Bacile | May 11, 2012

Advertising is on its deathbed and it will not survive long, having contracted a fatal disease of new technology.”

— Roland Rust and Rich Oliver, 1994, in the Journal of Advertising

The opening quote is from an 18-year old article titled “The Death of Advertising”, in which predictions are made regarding the inevitable end of extant advertising strategies. The authors stated that in “10-to-15” years advertising as we know it (back in 1994) will be dead. However, here we are several years later, and advertising is not dead – at least to the degree predicted. This is not to say the authors were off their rocker in their prediction – these are two very smart marketing researchers – but rather advertising has had a surprising ability to hang on into its ripe old age despite newer, younger, and sleeker options looking to replace it.

Technological advances in marketing have forced managers and industry leaders to change the way they communicate and offer products to consumers. Advertising itself has seen this first hand in the past and continually has adapted. For instance, new technologies in printers forever changed how mass audiences were advertised to, via newspapers and magazines. Radio, and later television, followed print media to enable advertisers to more effectively reach their target audience in new and innovative ways. For many of these advancements marketers and advertisers were able to maintain their all-inclusive control over the communication process to consumers. For example, when television became widespread decades ago, powerful firms and ad agencies that had worked with the radio broadcasting networks began to work with the three sole television networks. And when television networks expanded to additional public stations – and eventually cable networks – the same default model of key corporate decision makers controlling all aspects of the advertising and communication process remained. The powerful few corporations controlled the powerless masses of consumers, otherwise referred to as “the micro-impotence of consumers’’ (Rezabakhsh et al. 2006). This power advantage for marketers was due to information asymmetry and the bases of social power favoring ad agencies and marketing departments representing firms that were rich in resources.

For the first time in at least a century this power model is not carrying over to the next emerging media spaces. The dominant forms of newer media are emerging in the form of social media and mobile devices with ubiquitous connectivity. In these media the all-inclusive corporate-control model is not appropriate. Yet there are no widespread advertising or marketing strategies firmly entrenched to guide marketers. There are tips and to-do lists, but no overarching theories or philosophies to force a deviation from advertising strategies grounded in mass media. Instead we are seeing ad agencies and marketers make mistakes in new media; and several self-titled “experts” with a large following standing on a pedestal boasting about what works in new media. In effect, what we are seeing is more like the Wild West with some marketers acting as town sheriffs taking the law into their own hands; and the “experts” acting like gunslingers seeking to takeout the ill-prepared sheriffs.

In fact, what I am seeing is very similar mass media ad methods being applied to these new media channels. It is true that in some new media consumers can now “opt-in” which gives the appearance that consumers have more control over advertising / marketing communication. However, this is a facade marketers use giving the illusion of consumer participation and empowerment. Consumers are opting-in to become a passive audience unable to make specific decisions within the marketing communication process. As a passive audience consumers are exposed to ads and promotional messages based on agendas decided by firms. Marketers still control the frequency, time of delivery, length, design, and other factors that make up marketing communication in new media. This situation is no different than consumers turning on their TV and being exposed to commercials without the direct ability to express individual preferences (such as when to send an ad, how often, what type of content preferred, etc.). An ironic comparison can be drawn to mass media concerning this passivity. Consumers can, in effect, opt-in through a non-formal process with mass media such as choosing what station to watch or what radio channel to listen to, but then the consumer ceases all control. This is what we are seeing for the most part in newer media channels. The old way of advertising is carrying over to new media. Advertising has dodged another bullet.

Back to “The Death of Advertising”: the core ideas are correct, in that advertising as we knew it in the 1980s and 1990s is based on a problematic foundation when consumers demand an increase in control and participation with more personal media. Yet, the 100+ year history of ad agencies and marketers being the sole decision makers in the advertising / marketing communication process is “not dead”. Case in point: 95% of Facebook questions or complaints that consumers post to a company’s Facebook wall go unanswered, or worse yet deleted. Why? Many firms view their Facebook page as an ad medium that they control. As one prominent marketer told me: “Our company Facebook page is not a blog, it is our page. We control what goes up and what gets removed on the Wall.” Old habits die hard. Until new guiding strategies are not only discovered, but become widespread and adapted by major ad agencies and marketing gurus, we will continue to see advertising’s core ideas from decades ago live on well into its old age without fear of death.


Todd Bacile is a marketing doctoral candidate and instructor for Electronic Marketing and Services Marketing in the College of Business at Florida State University. He has published and presented numerous marketing studies in the areas of social media, mobile marketing, and services marketing at national and regional marketing conferences. When not working, he loves to cook BBQ on his smoker and always enjoys a good baseball trivia question. You can contact him on Twitter @toddbacile

David Fountain contributed to this post. He is an undergraduate student at Florida State University with a passion for marketing and social media. You can contact him on Twitter @jdfountain


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