Advertising and Attention-Span 

Recently, I have participated in several industry surveys, all of which turned out to be about advertising.  I am still not entirely sure why I did this, other than as a device to create some space which didn't involve the usual level of furious mental activity that now seems to be a permanent feature of our profession.  Perhaps the possibility of winning an iPad also had something to do with it.  On balance, a power-nap in a darkened room would probably have been preferable, but even so the experience was enlightening.

If you have participated in one of these online surveys, I guess you'll know the format.  Which of the following publications do you read?  How often do you read them?  Which of these investment providers are you aware of?  How would you rate them for this, that and the other?  And then the survey begins to narrow down its focus:  have you recently seen this advert?  Which provider was it for?  To what extent did it Rock Your World?  Suddenly, you realise that the survey is really all about one particular provider - what about this version of its latest advert?  Did it make you want to rush out and buy one?  Did it utterly transform how you thought about this provider?

As I progress through the survey, I am aware of a process where my personality is morphing into the mental picture I have of Scrooge.  In my optimistic little world of self-awareness, I have retained the (clearly groundless) hope that I am a reasonably open individual, not at all closed-off to the world outside.  But this survey is making me aware that not only am I blissfully unaware of these providers paying crazy sums of money for full-page colour adverts, but actually I don't care that I am ignorant.  In my world, the adverts are the bits you speed past to get to something else that you hope might be of sufficient value to repay the time spent reading it.  Usually, you're disappointed with even that expectation, but think how hollow and cynical one's existence would be if you did actually pay attention to the advertisements?

As I respond to the survey questions, occasionally I become vaguely aware that there is an image I have seen before - but mostly, the various screenshots merely emphasise a kind of profound ignorance:  I appear to be blind to advertisements.  And worse than that, assuming this is a kind of character defect (as the survey-provider suggests), I am wilfully apathetic about the consequences.  I imagine a marketing team at the other end: "Have you seen this guy's responses?  What a luddite!"  Or perhaps (and here I am engaging in fantasy), gripped in a bout of collective weeping, because I am so unappreciative of their work.

I'm sorry, Investec.  Even if you are "So Predictable", I simply don't care.  Please forgive me, Baillie Gifford, you may have "A Measured Strategy", but I've measured the length of my working hours and found that there's no room left for Adverts.  "Hi honey," says my wife when I get home, red-eyed after another day of advert reading, "...so what did you do today?"  No, I'm sorry, even if it were true, I could not bring myself to admit it.  Paying any attention to the adverts would simply be a precious waste of life, and there seems to be so little of it left.  If 'Financial Adviser' was a TV programme recorded from a commercial station, I'd have my finger permanently on the fast forward button of the remote, and as the latest edition hits the bottom of the wastebin, I confess to shedding few sighs over its passing.

OK, I do understand the equation.  Without all those advertisements, my latest copy of 'IFA Magazine' simply wouldn't get to me.  In the September edition, fourteen pages are taken up with ads (that's 24% of the total content), and actually that's pretty good in comparison with some others.  The ads make the thing economic, but I suspect that a sizeable proportion of the journalism is sourced for free and therefore qualifies as a kind of advertorial.  From my perspective, it would be all the same if product-providers were simply purchasing blocks of complete blankness - in fact, they'd be doing me a favour, making it easier to scan the rest of the text for content that does actually have value.  With some publications, that alone would be enough of a challenge.

There is actually a serious message here.  On one level, our culture has progressed beyond one which valued words, to one which is easily manipulated by the image.  Image 'rules', and in many ways replaces ideas and concepts, the things which used to matter within our intellectual world - recall how much of the whole 'Brexit' debate seemed to be governed by memes, rather than by a substantive discussion of the principles.  But the proliferation of imagery does then become counterproductive - it is unlikely that I am the only IFA on the planet with the ability to screen out adverts, and this, increasingly, is true for your clients as well.  This has implications for your own marketing, how you frame and present your message, how often you do so, and how specific you make it.

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