Reserve, if you can, an ounce of pity for the blue-chip ad-maker. Or better yet, put yourselves in his or her shoes.
You’re a middle-age professional who has risen through the ranks, and are now responsible for buying and plotting advertising strategy at a very large company. Because your brands—beer, T-shirts, financial services, pharmaceuticals—are consumed by lots of people and long ago achieved saturation, you have to reach everybody. You know where the old and middle-age people reside: television, newspapers, magazines. But in a fragmented world, it’s getting harder and harder to find them in big groups. As for millennials, who are now the largest cohort in the workforce and whose purchasing power is rising as baby boomers start to die, who knows? Snapchat, Twitter, and Twitch are mysteries to you. And since the guy you report to is much older than you—the median age of a CEO of an S&P 500 company is 57—the new platforms are even more of a mystery to him. Oh, and technology is impacting the way ads are placed in terrifying ways: Ad-blocking, DVRing, programmatic buys, and on-demand video are all distorting and frustrating an industry where the potential rewards of any one ad are shrinking, yet the stakes are only heading skyward.
It was easier back when you were marketing primarily to your fellow boomers, or even to Gen Xers. There were three main television networks and a handful of cable television stations, a few giant newsweeklies and a host of big-city newspapers. People engaging with content had no choice but to sit through your advertisement. And while the internet opened up a seemingly endless array of possibilities, the giant portals like AOL, Yahoo, and MSN were at least relatable.
But the landscape today is a minefield, where the potential for embarrassment is great—as several recent episodes have shown.
After the New York Times’ Sapna Maheshwari pointed out to Chase that ads for its tony private banking unit were appearing on distinctly downscale Hillary-hostile fake news domains, the bank discovered that its ads were appearing on some 400,000 websites. Culling the crap sites from the herd, Chase has since slashed the number of sites on which its ads appear to 5,000 with “little change in the cost of impressions or the visibility of its ads on the internet.” Put another way: The ads placed on those other 395,000 sites were essentially wasted.
One smart way to avoid having ads for your well-known brand sprayed across a gazillion random sites by a thoughtless computer program is to focus your fire on the equivalent of today’s big networks: platforms like YouTube and Facebook, which have massive audiences. But guess what? Since no one video or post can guarantee millions of views, these platforms use algorithms and computer programs to place the ads in hundreds of thousands of videos and alongside millions of articles. But because the robots are inexperienced, they sometimes place ads of wholesome companies like Pepsi and Walmart on … racist YouTube videos. Imagine the Wall Street Journal–reading CEO of your company calling you to ask why part of his ad budget was spent against a video titled, “A 6000 Year History of the Jew World Order.”
It’s tempting, amid all this clamor, to focus on an old medium—television. But there are so many channels, and so many shows that don’t garner consistent audiences, so it’s not as simple as just buying ads on NBC, CBS, and ABC. Of course, there happens to be a show on a very prominent cable network that reliably wins its 8 p.m. time slot, reeling in more than 5 million viewers each night (including its 11 p.m. rebroadcast). What’s more, you know that the demographics—disproportionately old, white, male, and well-off—are prime targets for the prescription drug, the life insurance, or the luxury car you’re selling. Until last week, Bill O’Reilly’s show seemed like something of a safe haven. Now you’re likely to get a call from the C-suite asking why the company is running ads on a show hosted by a serial sexual harasser. An impressive list of well-known companies has already dropped O’Reilly. Why hasn’t yours?
Which brings us to the Kendall Jenner Pepsi debacle. How could this happen? Pepsi’s ad teams are in a tough spot. Soda sales have fallen for 11 straight years. Older people are either kicking the habit or drinking Coca-Cola—and they don’t switch. Research tells us that brand preferences are formed and solidified when people are young. So any ad strategy aimed at boosting the core product has to focus on millennials.
Here’s what middle-age people in the marketing industry know about millennials: They’re diverse, they’re into social causes, they’re self-absorbed, they want to believe in goodness, and above all, they respond to social media cues and influencers. So when an idea bubbles up that suggests playing on the Black Lives Matter and Women’s March protests—but with a generic uplifting message—it doesn’t sound like the worst idea. You populate it with a full rainbow of young Americans: an Asian cellist with a cool loft space, a Muslim woman with a nose piercing and a camera, two girls who might be romantic partners (or maybe just good friends), black Americans, Latinos, and whites whose outfits scan as hipster. You order up a soundtrack that appeals to narcissism: We are the movement, this generation. You allow the director to let it go on for a few minutes, because it won’t air during some sitcom but instead spread socially on YouTube and Facebook. And to make sure it goes viral, you hire one of the biggest social media stars on the planet—a model/reality star followed by 21 million people on Twitter and 77.9 million people on Instagram—to star in it. It’s tough out there for an advertising executive, but you’ve finally got something that checks all your boxes.