Ads and fundraising asks can be enchanting, if they are creative, heartfelt, or done with a certain wry sensibility. But all I feel lately is badgered. Am I just cranky, or does anyone else feel it too? Not just the rushing stream of bad news and violence, but the ratcheted up begging for money. Tip jars to the point of ludicrousness. (There was one at the cannabis dispensary! For setting a jar of sleepytime indica on the counter and entering the price!) On Facebook, I cannot wish someone happy birthday without feeling guilty if I do not donate to their favorite charity. GoFundMe’s are everywhere. Every wonderful publication out there is forced to beg for subscriptions, sign-ups, and donations before you read one word of their content. Public radio and tv stations use guilt as currency and throw inordinate energy into the annual fundraising drives we all dread.
Individual consumers seem to be funding everything. The burden has shifted from restaurant and small business owners—who ought to be paying decent salaries automatically—to customers who have to add a surcharge to the price and taxes in order to feel okay about themselves. Why should the government fund educational tv and radio when it barely funds education? Advertisers can no longer be counted on to help sustain the responsible news reporting and investigative journalism that used to keep us a democracy.
You know what I do for a living. My husband teaches history as an adjunct instructor. We do not have a lot of cash available to caulk these gaps. And I am fast moving from guilty regret to exasperation. Every month, ExpressScripts wastes a stamp to remind Andrew that he could save by ordering his prescriptions by mail. We like our independent, family-owned pharmacy. They are kind and helpful, and they know our names and care about our health. So every month, I tear up the letter, knowing I have no way to convey such sentiments to the big corporation and even if I could, they would not stop sending that letter, because it has been automated to remind us until we cave.
Digital signs flash even in our small Midwestern town. Pop-ups block me at every click; videos start playing of their own accord, like a hellish online Fantasia. I dread computer updates, because I know I will have to extricate myself once more from Bing’s clutches. I hate Bing. Bing is like a guy you feel sorry for at first because he is so obviously inferior, and then, if you are the least bit kind to him, he starts stalking you, and you realize that beneath the dorkiness lies raw aggression.
Even my favorite websites pop boxes at me urging me to sign up for the newsletter I already receive. Or buy the thing I decided against. Alerts and emails I opt out of come back anyway, rising like Godzilla from the sea if I dare visit, just once, that site again. Because we still watch the evening news the old-fashioned way, we are treated nightly to advertisers who think their audience so old and in-valid that reciting a list of side effects including vomiting, organ failure, and possible death will be enough to sell the pill. We also receive scammy offers addressed to our (now dead) mothers. Dear God, what seniors are sent! You finally reach an age of dignity and ease, having served and sacrificed for decades, only to be terrorized, browbeaten, and defrauded.
Those examples verge on immorality, but for the blander norm, part of the problem is automation. Communicating is now so cheap and easy that people do as much of it as possible—and the systems are not readily responsive to individual circumstances. Theory is also involved: we have been taught that the way to bend the world to our will is to continually, relentlessly assert our needs and desires, and that assumption bleeds into the practices of companies and organizations. Especially now, when the economy might be shaky (a line I hesitate to write for fear that saying it will make it so) and the tone of commerce is one of thinly veiled, grim resolve. By God this company will make itself heard among the cacophony of voices. Forget creativity. Forget the welcome humor and casual cool that entered the advertising arena at the new millennium. Reach them.
Maybe I need to hunt for better ads. But if the Superbowl does not have them, who will? Ads in the prosperous 1950s were cheerful—look what bright promise our product holds! By the 1970s, some were seductive and a little creepy, but most were entertaining. Then they stopped even trying to entertain us and just flat-out told us how to live. Go for it! Just do it. Think different. Get out there.
“Didactic marketing’s new devotees are companies with few if any product or service improvements to showcase,” a 2006 article in Forbes pointed out. “It’s a case of the best defense is a good offense,” said Thomas Ordahl, a partner at marketing and branding specialist Group 1066. “It’s like, ‘Let’s keep them from asking too many questions.’”
The didactic trend was mercifully undercut when people realized that social media did not favor the hard-sell. Companies recruited influencers instead, which made the business of persuasion even smarmier. Now they bombard us with a mix of every strategy.
At the top of Deloitte’s list of 2023 global marketing trends is the statement that “brands answer economic instability with marketing investments.” The annual report shows more red than black? Chief marketing officers are “prioritizing new technologies, expanding markets, and customer personalization to help their brands endure—and thrive—in uncertain times.”
In other words, they are throwing themselves at us. Repeatedly. And because we drop newspaper subscriptions and fast-forward through commercials and prefer streaming to broadcast and block ads on our computers, marketing has become a flat-out wrestling match.
Marketing and communications professionals (I use the word loosely, because a profession has a code of ethics and a purpose that transcends profit) fared the worst in a survey of seven thousand professionals, with 83.3 percent reporting burnout.
We are feeling their pain.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.