The Medium Makes the Man

February 8, 2009 at 3:35 am Leave a comment

(This article was originally published in the August 14 2006 edition of Advertising Age with the title “Electronic Media: Altering Our Intelligence.”)

Electronic media make you stupid.
It’s a common refrain we hear from educators, critics and barstool philosophers. And they’re not entirely wrong. Some very useful portions of our brains have, in fact, been sucked into the cathode ray tubes in our living rooms. Others have disappeared into a mysterious, unreachable place at the far end of our Ethernet cables.
The media-induced diminution of human intelligence is very real. The good news for those of us in the advertising industry is that, slowly, an entirely new form of intelligence is being born to replace it. Despite what the conspiracy theorists/anti-globalization zealots/subliminal advertising rabble may believe, obtuse consumers do not serve the interest of our craft.
Any medium, taken in large enough doses over time, is capable of changing our brains. I mean this quite literally. Because of television, because of the internet, the human brain works in a fundamentally different way than it used to. And I can prove it.
To do so, I take you back to the afternoon of October 16, 1854. On that day Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in Peoria, Illinois. Douglas kicked things off at 2:00 p.m. and spoke uninterrupted for three hours. When Lincoln rose to reply, he did something astonishing.
He told the crowd that they should all go home for an hour and have dinner, because he would be requiring just as much time as Douglas had used to reply to his arguments. Then, he added, Douglas would also need time for a rebuttal. So basically Lincoln told them to get ready to listen for another four hours.
Then something even more astonishing happened. The crowd did exactly that.
Today we wouldn’t even consider sitting still for seven hours of political debate. In fact, the only politicians who can command the attention of an audience for that long in 2006 are totalitarian dictators, and that’s because their audiences are afraid to get up and walk out.
The citizens of Peoria were perfectly happy to listen for seven hours, however, because they lived in an age whose dominant medium was the printed word, and—this is the critical point—the dominant medium of every age defines the way humans expect the world to be. Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” but Neil Postman came closer to getting it right when he said “the medium is the metaphor.”
When the printing press reigned, communication was about exposition and long, subtle arguments, because that’s what the printed word does well. People’s brains were conditioned to understand the world in that way.
If the medium is indeed the metaphor, what does this mean to the advertising industry today? I think it means that our central challenge has become to understand the changes that are being wrought on the brains of our consumers by rapidly evolving electronic media. In other words, what is the metaphor we must conform to in order to ensure that our messages are heard? It’s certainly not as simple as the printed word. It’s not even as simple as the internet, which of course, isn’t simple at all. It’s more like a combination of electronic and interactive platforms that are constantly rearranging themselves to fit together into a new complex, protean super-medium.
Think for a moment about the basics of how electronic media work, how they communicate. Television and the online space are not well suited to lengthy logical arguments. They’re much better at amusing than informing or educating. Electronic media—especially the internet—also tend to chop communication into smaller and smaller pieces. Political discourse is a prime example. Today, the only political “arguments” most people ever hear last 30 seconds.
These smaller pieces of communication are also delivered in increasingly random order. Click through the bookmarks on your browser. Chances are you’ll be able to go through a dizzying number of subjects—all absolutely unrelated to each other—in under a minute. There’s a sort of entropy going on in the world of communication. Disorder will only increase. Creating orderly, understandable messages in this entropic universe is the job of advertisers, and it will only get more difficult, because the definition of “orderly” has become a moving target.
Electronic media are doing to communication what Georges Braque and Marcel Duchamp did to painting. As a result, we are all grappling with the rise of what I call “electro-cubism.” The logic of how we expect communication to work has been shattered and reassembled in a way we are only beginning to grasp. The people who figure out a way to make sense of “electro-cubist” communication will in essence be inventing a new form of intelligence to replace the old one that television and the internet have been destroying.
If you don’t find the thought of “electro-cubism” particularly reassuring, take comfort in at least one hopeful development that new media bring with them to offset the trend towards chaos in communication. Oddly enough, to find a clue to what it is, we have to go back some 2,400 years to Socrates.
Socrates left no writings of his own, of course. We know of him from the writings of others—principally Plato. There’s a reason for this. Socrates was deeply suspicious about displacing the spoken word—which is a medium, make no mistake about it—with the written word. He believed in the process of question and answer, dialogue between teacher and student—what we now know as the Socratic method.
In Phaedrus, he spoke against writing on the grounds that it would weaken our memories and degrade the quality of education. Writing, he believed, forces a student to follow an argument rather than participate in it. When we replaced speaking with writing, information, wisdom and knowledge began to flow exclusively in one direction.
The internet has finally changed this. Consumers are no longer consigned to following the arguments our brands make; they are full-blown participants in them. The means of mass communication are in the hands of virtually everyone. The individual, if his ideas are compelling enough, can touch as many people as the global corporation.
Ultimately, what this means is that our challenge is not only figuring out how to articulate our messages in a chaotic, “electro-cubist” world; it’s learning how to listen again, and in an entirely new way. In the 21st century, rediscovering the purpose of our ears will make us better marketers than devising new ways to use our mouths. When I talk about listening to consumers, I do not mean simply jumping on the dangerously overloaded consumer-generated-content bandwagon. The point is that we have to go deeper than the interactive buzzword of the month.
Advertising and marketing decisions tend to be made by a dozen people sitting around a conference table. What I’m talking about is bringing the 13th man into the room. The 13th man is the consumer. There is a group of loyalist consumers who care as much about every big brand just as much as the people who are paid to make the marketing decisions. (Don’t believe me? Google “Mountain Dew” and check out all the fan sites that have sprung up like weeds through a sidewalk.) If we want to be smart marketers, we need to make sure their voice—the voice of the 13th man—is heard.
Don’t do research on the thirteenth man; consult with him. There is an enormous difference. The 13th man is not a subject of our experiments; he is a partner in inventing our brands. Ask him to sample new flavors at the same time you do, take his ideas for new products seriously, get his thoughts on your next ad campaign. Technology has made it ridiculously easy to do all these things and more, yet very few companies have tapped into the enormous brainpower of this willing partner.
You may not always take his advice of the 13th man, but if you don’t listen to him at all, rest assured that he will find someone else who will.

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February 2009

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