Custom media: New rules for a new game

One of the more memorable print ads in the ground-breaking Volkswagen campaign of the mid-1960s showed a plain black line on a plain background tracing the distinctive profile of the VW Beetle. The clever and equally straightforward headline read: 'How much longer can we hand you this line?'

One of the more memorable print ads in the ground-breaking Volkswagen campaign of the mid-1960s showed a plain black line on a plain background tracing the distinctive profile of the VW Beetle. The clever and equally straightforward headline read: ‘How much longer can we hand you this line?’

Now, 40 years later, that same question can be directed to the advertising industry itself as it awakens to a new and dramatically altered communications landscape.

The old notion of a class system separation between above-the-line media like TV, radio, print and outdoor from what were once viewed as the also-rans, or below the line media vehicles, such as promotions, events, and public relations, is dead and buried.

There simply is no more line.

The playing field has been levelled. In fact, it’s being completely redrawn, and a new era of infinite possibilities is upon us. The rules of the game have changed forever. The rapid growth of new media options has splintered mass markets into a vast assortment of communities of common interest, niche markets that are accessible as never before, and that are now being governed by new rules of consumer engagement. Push has been replaced by permission, power is shifting to the buyer and the advertising monologue is giving way to consumer dialogue.

In the process, we must rethink everything.

Last fall, the U.S. advertising industry was shocked to learn that young male viewers were abandoning prime-time TV. A recent study provides some insights into where they went.

According to U.S. researcher Knowledge Networks/SRI, video games are becoming a mainstream media product in the lives of both young adult and teenage males. The findings indicate that in the U.S. men 18-to-34 devote 6% and teenage males devote 15% of the time they spend with media each day to playing video games. This means that video games now rival conventional media, such as print, as a channel to reach young men.

And the fight for consumer attention is not confined to those youth, who were raised in a media-glutted, Internet world. The challenge is being spread across the entire family. According to a recent study by the U.S. firm BIGresearch, more than 70% of consumers use media simultaneously.

The study found that when listening to radio, 57.3% simultaneously go online, 46.9% read newspaper and 17.7% watch TV. Some 74.2% of people who watch TV regularly or occasionally read the newspaper simultaneously.

As one media watcher observed: ‘Each [media] device used to be singular and unrelated. But now, between the PC, the TV, the DVR, and all the crossover multimedia devices now available to consumers, the household has effectively become a media network.’

This new reality is blurring the lines that have traditionally separated one area of marketing practice from another. We are seeing new creative twists to media use and content development entering into the mainstream from all sources: the media, suppliers, agencies, and clients themselves.

The American Express five-minute ‘Webisodes,’ featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld and an animated Superman character on the American Express Web site are only the latest example of a major marketing company choosing to capture its audience with custom-built, big-ticket entertainment as a means of delivering its commercial message.

Carmaker BMW was the first to cause a stir with its Hollywood-style Web films which, incidentally, became as much of a sensation virally and in the public relations aftermath, as through the original Web casts.

While clearly only a few companies can afford to develop and produce content of that scale, others can’t afford not to challenge themselves to think differently. New marketing platforms are bound to emerge.

Advergaming is one. A report at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, suggested that ‘advergaming’ will begin to be used by marketers to help increase brand and product awareness, customer loyalty, and time spent at an advertiser’s Web site.

At The Hive we used the unique properties of text messaging to help make fans at the Air Canada Centre aware that Miller Genuine Draft had become the official beer of the Toronto Raptors.

In other cases, such as an integrated marketing program developed for Miller International, we built a hybrid communications strategy linking Miller with the 50th anniversary of Fender guitars in an integrated music platform.

We combined some traditional advertising with promotion, all under a strong brand positioning.

This is but one of many new emerging media to watch. The European market is much more advanced in the adoption of text messaging than North America. The U.K., for example, last year surpassed 100 million text messages in a day. In Canada, it is estimated that about 35 million text messages are being sent each month.

Before we know it, text messaging will be as prevalent a form of communications as the cell phone itself, and its arrival will provide marketers with access to yet another new medium, complete with its own eccentricities, subtle nuances, and in this case, even its own language.

And, once again, the lines will be redrawn.

Rick Shaver is a partner and VP of client services for The Hive Strategic Marketing in Toronto. He can be reached at rshaver@thehiveinc.com.