The Return of Commercial Speech

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OK, I have to add my two cents to the prediction business and label what I think might be an emergent, if not important trend for brands and marketers in our nascent new decade: we’re going to see the return of paid commercial speech.

Yup. I don’t know what we’ll call it yet — whether advertising, marketing, or something new altogether — but it’ll be a stark contrast to the Conversational School that has dominated the, re, conversation about marketing for the past few years. It’ll probably have little use for the term "content" and revert instead to older, more descriptive terms, like "information" and "messages that actually matter to someone." And my bet is that it’ll possess qualities that have proven utterly ellusive to the most celebrated marketing campaigns of the 2000s:
  • Authenticity: Paying for something always means disclosure — not just who (or what) is paying, but why — and companies spend money on marketing to sell stuff. Consumers know this, no matter how obfuscated that fact gets with entertaining and/or distracting content. Imagine a form of commercial communication that purported to be nothing more (or less) that what it is. It would be clear why brands and consumers were talking, and there would be credibility and reliability in such a definition. The format of this communication used to be advertising; that’s why companies ran the things for so many decades. I don’t know what we’ll call them now, but they won’t be ads, per se. Think the non-editorial spaces in media filled with information that’s more "real" that the journalist parts.
  • Meaning: If paying for saying/showing something had a purpose beyond entertainment (or some esoteric of brand engagement), the natural default would be that marketers would say/show things that meant something. It wouldn’t have to be serious or dour, but simply REAL and somewhat purposeful, so that when consumers were interrupted by something coming from a business they’d know it warranted their attention. Think how much time and creativity we expend trying to capture that attention because they know we’re not likely telling them anything worthwhile? We break through the clutter that we ourselves create. Paid commercial speech could have meaning again.
  • Relevance: For all the talk about customer-centricity and the near-fetish of believing that consumers "own brands," we still do damn little to be relevant to their lives. Instead, we spend a lot of time making sure what we say and do is relevant to our brands; their attention is still an afterthought, and it certainly relies on what we want them to do with us (vs. what we can provide to them beyond entertainment). Imagine if paid commercial speech meant we had something to say that mattered to them?
  • Utility: Ultimately, speech is grossly overrated (the cliche "talk is cheap" is as true now as it was in the Old Days); our brightest brands have spent at least the last 10 years perfecting the business to saying things. Brands get talked about, whether by businesses or the consumers they hope to inspire, and the measure of branding is how favorably and often people talk about products and services. My gut tells me that consumers expect and want more from us, and that the way to prove relevance is to provide utility. We should pay for the privilege of enabling our customers (or would-be customers) to something other than chuckle.

I’m not predicting the demise of conversational technologies, the death of creativity, or a return to the days of scantily-clad models draped over concept cars at auto shows. I’m just thinking that we’re going to start finding our way back to our roots in 2010 and rediscover and reaffirm the reasons why we wanted to have relationships with our customers in the first place.

We want to sell them stuff, and that’s not a bad thing. We’ve just done it badly for a while now. 

It’s time to return to commercial speech.

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