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  • Bob Hoffman


The advertising and marketing industries had a dream. The dream was that interactive media would revolutionize advertising and make it far more engaging, relevant, and effective. There's been one problem. Nobody's interested in interacting with advertising. In fact, one of the greatest benefits to consumers of interactivity is that it helps them avoid advertising.

Historically, interactivity has been the enemy of advertising. TV advertising became less effective with the invention of the remote. It was a lot more effective when people had to drag their ass off the sofa to change the channel. Radio advertising became less effective with the invention of the car push-button radio. As soon as an ad came on people interacted. Today the ability to click away, or scroll past a display ad, or the ability to click "skip ad" on YouTube are a pleasure for consumers, and a toothache for advertisers. Interactivity helps people avoid advertising.

Click through rates on display ads continue to drop. By most reports they are below one in a thousand. Every attempt at “interactive” TV has been a dismal failure. YouTube has billions of ostensibly "viral" videos. The overwhelmingly majority of which have never been viewed by anyone but the creator’s mom.

Of course, we never hear or read about any of this. The narratives we are exposed to about marketing activities and the beliefs we have in the success of these activities are profoundly skewed by the bias toward trumpeting success, not failure. Who wants to reveal themselves for the bewildered bumblers they are? Not me. It's wise to be forthcoming about your successes and circumspect about your failures.

This leads to a form of "selection bias" -- an error of logic in which people draw conclusions based on exposure to horribly skewed information. As someone who has a moderately successful newsletter, I can tell you I've been pitched about a million success stories and not a single failure.

For every success story we are exposed to in the trade press, at conferences, or in the business section of the newspaper, there are a thousand untold non-successes we don't read or hear about. These are the non-spectacular stories, created in non-spectacular fashion, by non-spectacular brands. In other words, they are about 99% of everything that happens in marketing.

What marketers seem unable to comprehend is that, at best, advertising is a minor annoyance. It is pretty clear that most people are willing to go to substantial lengths to avoid it. Streaming video now constitutes a significant part of all TV viewing. Much of it costs people up to $100 a year, but part of the value proposition is that it's largely ad free. 

Easy interaction with a medium is not an advertiser's friend. But there is apparently no end to marketers' ability to delude themselves. And also no end to ad hustlers' willingness to feed these delusions.

There are a few exceptions. Happily there are some very talented people in advertising who can create ads that are so interesting, beautiful, or funny that people will not try to avoid them. Unhappily, there ain't many of them.

For the most part, the only way to get most people to pay attention to your advertising message is to force them to do it. This is why social media marketing - which started life with a utopian vision of free “sharing” and “conversations” - quickly evolved into traditional paid advertising. Mr. Zuckerberg thanks you.

The lovely fantasy of online advertising -- in which the same person who was frantically clicking her remote to escape from TV advertising was going to merrily click her mouse to interact with online advertising -- is going to go down as one of the great marketing delusions of all time. It has been undermined by an unfortunate fact of nature -- no one in his right mind volunteers for advertising. 

By a factor of about a thousand to one, people who can interact with media do so to avoid advertising -- not engage with it.

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