When I was a kid in the ’60s, one of my favorite television shows was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It was a wonderful, weekly view of wild animals and their wilderness habitats, narrated by zoologist Marlin Perkins and aided by his fearless sidekick Jim Fowler. The program introduced me to all manner of wild animals and environs while subtly embedding in my brain messages about conservation and respect for all living creatures (even though Perkins and Fowler often resorted to tranquilizer darts to take down and sedate various creatures for study and tagging).
The show also embedded into my impressionable young mind that Mutual of Omaha was some sort of insurance company. At 9 or 10, I didn’t give two slaps about home, health or life insurance, but the very fact that the company’s name was embedded in the title of one of my favorite TV shows led me to believe Mutual of Omaha was one of the good guys. (Later in life, I even went to work for the company for a couple of months, selling insurance door to door. I quickly learned that I was not cut out for insurance sales. Not that type, at least.)
I knew nothing about underwriting or sponsorship in those days. But I knew about advertising, because I was constantly bombarded by TV ads as I passively sat before the television set, waiting for them to pass so I could get on with watching whatever show happened to be holding my attention at the time.
And I knew enough about that kind of advertising to know I didn’t like it. It was a nuisance. An interruption.
But Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom – that was different. I did not see the insurance company’s underwriting of that program as an interruption of the program. It was part of the program itself.
Wild Kingdom is one of the examples of a good, or at least less annoying, approach to advertising cited by Andrew Essex in his recent book, The End of Advertising: Why It Had to Die, and the Creative Resurrection to Come.
Yes, the book’s title smacks of hyperbole. Observers have been writing mass media advertising’s obituary since at least 1994, when it was “on its deathbed” and had “[n]ever before … appeared so pale and lifeless,” according to this scholarly journal article. But mass media advertising refuses to go quiet into the night. To borrow a phrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s not quite dead yet.
We interrupt this interruption…
Essex’s book isn’t proclaiming the demise of all forms of advertising. The subject matter is interruption marketing in its many forms — TV and radio ads, email blasts, newspaper and magazine ads, pre-roll video ads before a YouTube video, sponsored ads in your social media feeds, and those annoying interstitial ads that pop up when you’re trying to access some bit of content on the web. He’s also talking about the visual pollution marketers create with our billboards and signage — from Times Square in New York to airports to once-bucolic countrysides. This kind of advertising intrudes upon us. It is unwelcome and annoying. Is it any wonder that DVRs and ad-blocking software are so popular?
Interruption marketing causes tweets like these:
Recent research by Forrester (catchy title: “The End of Advertising As We Know It”) suggests that savvy marketers will take $2.9 billion out of display advertising next year and figure out other ways to spend it for the benefit of their organizations. Forrester analyst James McQuivey, writing about the report in Forbes, says “the end of advertising is coming because interruptions are ending. … [C]onsumers have options for getting what they want without interruptions.”
“Interruptions have worked for a while now and still do in the digital age,” McQuivey continues. “But interruption only works if consumers spend time doing interruptible things on interruption-friendly devices. [Emphasis in the original article.] Once they can get what they want without leaving themselves open to interruptions — whether through voice interfaces or AI-driven background services — they will feel even more hostile to ad interruptions than they claim to today. That means the 38% of US online adult users already trending toward computer-based ad blocking and ad avoidance will continue to expand — not out of hostile consumer intent, but out of casual indifference to advertiser interests.”
As people spend less of their time doing “interruptible things,” interruption advertising will cease to serve a purpose.
And now, a word from our sponsor
Which brings us back to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
Once upon a time, brands created things (like programs or movies), instead of “the thing that interrupts the thing,” Essex writes. This is also known as content marketing. Wild Kingdom was one such, um, animal (and still is; the program became a web-based series, that was most recently produced in 2016.) General Electric Theater, which ran first on radio and then television in the ’50s and ’60s (and was hosted by Ronald Reagan), is another.
And one of the latest and greatest brand-created things Essex discusses in his book is 2014’s The Lego Movie, a 3-D animated adventure flick in which the entire story is told in a world of Lego product. I don’t know how much Lego spends on its interruption marketing (if anything), but I suspect that, dollar for dollar, the movie provided a much greater return by product and brand-name placement alone. It’s been called possibly “the biggest, most high-profile piece of branded content … ever made in the history of brands or content.”
What’s next for higher ed?
Where does this leave higher ed marketers, with our meager advertising and marketing budgets? Should we continue to invest in interruption marketing and hope that somehow this trend toward people spending less time doing interruptible things reverses itself?
I don’t think that’s an option.
We may not have the budget to create a blockbuster movie, but many of us are already creating content that is the thing. So we’re doing content marketing already. But we could stand to focus more on creating great content and worry less about molding it in the form of interruption-style pitches. Let’s give our audiences some credit for intelligence. We are, after all, in the education business.
We could also look at underwriting content or programs that reflect the mission of our institutions or connect with our goals for student recruitment.
At Missouri S&T, we were a sponsor for Maker Faire Kansas City, which brought together thousands of families and kids of all ages who are interested in making things. This is a great audience for a STEM-focused university like ours.
We’ll also soon be underwriting a science-focused event that is sponsored by a media organization.
The goal with both approaches is to raise visibility and to associate our university brand with events, projects and causes that mirror our own values and our mission. While we do still engage in some interruption marketing, we’re looking at other ways to spend our limited funds in ways that present our institution in a positive and non-invasive fashion.
Because nobody like annoying interruptions.