Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Advertising Is Pollution

Twenty-five years ago, the advertising landscape was full of optimism. Today, audiences are scrambling to block ads every way they can. But all is still not lost yet, argues Patrick Collister.
Updated 22 Jan, 2024 04:21pm

Twenty-five years of Aurora.


Congratulations to the editor and the team for surviving, if nothing else. The changes of the last 25 years have been relentless.

In the early 2000s, over 1,800 newspapers and magazines existed in Pakistan. By 2016 that was down to 539 and will almost certainly be lower today.

My own magazine, Directory, a quarterly compendium of great marketing comms from around the world, expired in 2022.

Digital transformation has turned entire industries upside down.

If publishing has been hurt, think about music.

When the labels had a product to sell, a record, a cassette, a CD, they made fabulous money. Then along came digitisation and Napster and illegal downloading and a great deal of pain. It’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that you can see how music was democratised. There are more people making a living from music now than there were in 2000.

Artists make their money from live performances. Also, through social media, they are closer to their audiences. They have been able to build communities. In becoming brands, they can create value outside of music.

Katy Perry has a line in footwear and is branching out into handbags. Rihanna has Fenty, her very own makeup company. And so on and so on.

It’s worth remembering this as we survey the carnage of change in advertising exemplified, perhaps, by the recent news Wunderman Thompson is merging with VMLY&R.

It’s a mash-up of four networks. JWT, once the most famous agency in the world, was a much-reduced leviathan when, in 2018, WPP taped it together with the ascending star of data-savvy Wunderman. Similarly, Y&R was struggling when it was forced into an arranged marriage with VML. No accident that in the new companies, Wunderman’s name came before Thompson and VML before Y&R.

Now the whole shebang is rolled up into VML, the youngest of the four, founded in 1992.

Just as the internet was beginning to develop.

(It was in 1992 that a group of students created the first browser called Mosaic; it morphed into Netscape.) In October 1994, the first banner ad ever appeared on Wired’s homepage and the rest is, as they say, history.

Yet, 25 years ago, the advertising landscape was one of green pastures and sunlit uplands.

In 1999, when Aurora was a year old, Seth Godin published Permission Marketing, a book full of optimism for the future.

He argued that digital comms was going to lead to advertising that was “anticipated, personal and relevant.”

People would want to look at ads from the brands that interested them, especially if there were personalised offers to sweeten the relationship. And because brands wouldn’t need to spend vast sums on annoyingly repetitive ads, marketing costs would come down. Savings could be passed on to customers.

Oh, it was going to be so lovely.

And here we are in 2023 with advertising that is the very opposite of anticipated, personal and relevant. It is annoying, crass and spooky.

Annoying in that there is now no escape. Some estimates reckon we are bombarded by 10,000 ads a day. Some of these are delivered with no consideration for the user experience at all. Try listening to music on YouTube. Suddenly, without warning, a 20-second ad interrupts the video. No wonder over a billion devices now have adblockers installed.

It is the biggest single protest movement in history.

Crass. There is a terrible conflict unfolding in the Middle East as I write. On X (Twitter as it was), in streams about the deaths of innocent people on both sides of the conflict, a computer games company has inserted animated ads with the message, “Use your math skills to beat the enemy.”

Spooky. Not merely that advertisers seem to know stuff about you they shouldn’t (I mentioned in an email to a friend I was suffering from gout; this opened up a flood of spam as well as targeted ads for treatments and cures) but alarming. Ad fraud is massive. It will cost the industry $100 billion this year.

It’s as much a problem in Pakistan as anywhere.

As a result of all this, the entire sector has become perjured.

An IPSOS poll in 2018 placed advertising executives as the least trusted people in the UK, less trusted than politicians.

Equally worrying is how the industry despises itself.

Have you ever seen the Bill Hicks video? “If you’re in advertising, kill yourself. You are Satan’s spawn.” Creatives in London and New York, Amsterdam and Sydney think it’s cool to wear tee-shirts with the entire text.

When in 2019 Skittles, the candy brand, put a musical on Broadway with the song Advertising Ruins Everything, no doubt the marketing and creative teams thought the irony would transcend the actual statement and Skittles would be seen as relevant and in touch.

The only problem is, 95% of ordinary people won’t see the irony. They agree. Advertising does ruin everything.

That’s why they will pay a subscription to YouTube Red or to Netflix. Both Meta and TikTok are considering ‘no ads’ plans at $4.99 a month and there will be plenty of takers.

Advertising is pollution.

Gen Z in particular is adept at avoiding it. Permission denied.

That said, all is not lost.

Here are six ways to create advertising that works.

1 Remember your product: At Cannes Lions this year, Apple was the Advertiser of the Year with no fewer than 27 awards, including the Grand Prix for Film with Leon. Almost all Apple’s ads are product demos but are funny and charming. Swiped is an eight-minute story about Apple’s security systems. It has been viewed 35 million times in 12 weeks. It turns out that people don’t hate advertising after all. Just bad advertising. This leads me to:

2 Make ads that people like: This should be a no-brainer but clients and agencies seem incapable of it. They should look to Ryan Reynolds, the actor, whose agency/production company, Maximum Effort, is producing product-focused ads for Aviation Gin, Mint Mobile and others that make people laugh. And buy. Remember, advertising’s primary purpose is to get people to purchase stuff. Which leads me to:

3 Consider your purpose: Too many CMOs have disappeared up their own backsides trying to be purposeful. To make a good product that meets a need which you can price competitively to keep your workers employed – that’s as good a purpose as any. Saving the planet is not a job for marketing. Which is a neat segue to:

4 Be social: Just as bands and musicians have used social media to build communities with their fans, brands can do the same. Warning. You have to listen to what your audience is saying. You will only get permission to join the conversation if you are respectful and thoughtful. Remember, consumers will bite when a brand gets it wrong. Dabur, trying to be inclusive, beat a hasty retreat when an ad featuring a same-sex couple celebrating Karwa Chauth caused offence.

5 Innovate: L’Oréal won six Innovation Awards at CES 2023. What is a beauty brand doing at the world’s largest consumer electronics show? Using tech to reinforce perceptions that it understands the modern world. Brands don’t communicate just in what they say but in what they do and how they do it. Letting people know what you are up to is where PR comes in, which may explain why it is growing at the expense of advertising.

6 Be creative: Creativity is nothing more and nothing less than solving problems and advertising’s big problem is there’s too much of it that’s too moronic. Be it your client or agency side, if you can help put out a campaign that is targeted intelligently and written empathetically, you will be creating an advertisement for advertising. And we need a few of those.

Patrick Collister is Custodian of The Caples Awards, formerly of Ogilvy London and Google NACE.