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Why is advertising and media planning still littered with military analogies?

Language is inextricably bound up with culture. It provides the common expression, the reference points that articulate who we are and what we do. Words describe experience, ideas, practices, facts, providing common understanding. They help reinforce conventions, behaviours and norms, particularly among communities who develop a singular language to describe what they do, like people who work in the same industry. Language expresses the reality of the cultures in which we live and work.

So why is it that advertising and media planning is still littered with military analogies? We plan and launch ‘campaigns’. We ‘battle’ for attention and talk about ‘target’ audiences. We measure ‘strike rates’ and ‘impacts’. We base our thinking on ‘strategies’ and deploy ‘tactics’. We desire ‘captive’ audiences. It’s like we’re at war with the people we’re trying to reach.

It’s a language born of a time when advertising was based almost entirely on one-way messaging, when people were aggregated into large amorphous demographic groups based on apparent propensity to behave in a particular way, for the convenience of being able to reach them with the same message in the same way at the same time. It’s a phraseology that speaks of one to many, the language of mass media and mass marketing. And it’s out of date.

If the internet has taught us one thing, it’s the value and trust that people place in interactions between real people. If we’ve learned anything from corporate history, it’s the relentless desire of companies to automate and de-personalise interaction with their customers and the people they’d like to be customers. The irony, as Seth Godin noted, is that an organisation with guts can go in the opposite direction and win.

The time is ripe for change because the world has changed. A study by Carat and Microsoft of more than 2,000 US shoppers found purchase journeys have (perhaps inevitably) become more complex, dynamic and multi-directional, characterised by reiterations in product considerations and leading to the need to move on from outdated linear purchase paths.

It’s a strange habit we’ve developed, that whenever we start talking of communicating with a large number of people we do everything we can to de-humanise the language we use. People become consumers or users, as if all that matters is what we think they do, not who they are.

Using this kind of language seems to define the association that brands increasingly want, and need, with their customers in all the wrong ways. Sir Tim Berners-Lee once described the web as “a subset of humans interacting”. People like people. Interaction needs people. Spreadable ideas need people. The great promise of digital is pull not push. The language of pull isn’t the language of generalisation, homogeneity and de-personalisation. We’ve lost the humanity in the terminology that we use and need to get it back.

We need to unlearn the habits that originated and belong in another era. Changing the language is a good place to start.


Published 21 October, 2010 by NMA Staff

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