When “Push” Comes to “Pull”

The last two years have been hard on people whose jobs require them to be bullish on the Internet. As you note, it’s been painted as a “sad-sack medium … whose biggest fans are still mired in a blend of depression and regret.” But don’t feel too bad for them. Everybody in the advertising business has suffered over the last two years as the Internet meltdown took the advertising economy with it. Thirty thousand advertising people lost their jobs in 2001 in New York alone. But, ironically, the Internet as a medium probably benefited from its own implosion during that period. As economies go bad, advertisers turn away from brand-building to promotion, from advertising that generates good will to advertising that has immediately measurable behavioral results.

In short, they turn from long-term to short-term strategies, living off brand equity they built in the past while promoting price and other special offers. Internet advertising, with its focus on click-throughs, was thought by many advertisers to fit the bill—as was junk mail and couponing. Though Internet advertising went down in 2001 (-11.6 percent vs. 2000), it probably did better than it would have had advertisers been less obsessed with measurable ROI.

But, of course, you are right: The Internet will grow as a force in advertising as it grows as a force in culture. How it will grow is the interesting question. It will not grow because it is “the first addictive medium since television.” (This claim is a bit bogus—radio, newspaper, magazine, and outdoor advertising all predate television. Radio transfixed America before television came along, but Americans now spend almost eight hours a day on average watching television. And try telling someone who must have their Wall Street Journal with their coffee or who checks their mailbox for their weekly New Yorker that print can’t be addictive.) That people who’ve spent more years on the Net spend more time on the Net proves not that it’s addictive but that it can be a difficult medium to master, especially since it’s continuously “evolving.” These phenomena are more emblematic of growing pains than of tremendous promise.

But, again, there is tremendous promise. As you hint, that promise will likely be fulfilled as the Internet becomes an enabling mechanism for other advertising media. If it continues to try to sell itself primarily as a “push” medium, its promise will be limited and its cultural impact will be negative. Like direct mail, it may become a needed part of marketers’ plans, but, also like direct mail, it will cater to the 1 percent of humanity who can stand the stuff, alienating the other 99 percent. (Why do you think they call it “spam”?) People currently resent most Internet advertising as intrusive and annoying and a betrayal of what they’d hoped the medium would be.

As an enabling medium that works in tandem with other media (working, for instance, with TV advertising to provide deeper levels of information, segmented added-value opportunities, highly targeted promotions, or even longer-form “advertainment” [BMW Films]), Internet advertising can focus on providing a unique “pull” medium that is welcomed rather than shunned. The people who sell Net advertising could then capitalize on the empowering and personalized potential of the medium rather than trying to cram another big mailbox with more and more crap. Whether the hybrid programs that result from that kind of convergence should truly be called “Internet advertising” is another question.