The Dark Side of Advertising by Invitation
By Mike Carlton

None of us knows what we don’t know
Like it or not, big positive changes require intrusion


In early 2003 I attended an advertising conference in Los Angeles. It addressed the convergence of advertising and entertainment. Rance Crain, editor in chief of Ad Age and president of Crain Communications was a key speaker.

His thesis was, “The advertising model has changed from intrusion to invitation.” Intrusion is when the marketer chooses the time and place of the message. And invitation is when that choice is in the hands of the consumer.

I got the concept. Like everyone else, I knew that advertising was not working quite like it used to. But until that day I had not grasped just what was happening or the significance of the transition.

A Lot Has Changed

During the intervening years things have moved quickly. The power shift from the marketer to the consumer has gained momentum. The transition from advertising by intrusion to advertising by invitation has become a primary topic of industry discussion. Dominating trade journals and industry meetings. And it is also an underlying principle enabling Web 2.0 and social media.

The sender of commercial information no longer has full control. The message receiver is not just passive any more. We have moved into uncharted territory.

A Look Back

Let’s take a look at how we got here.

Sixty years ago much of the commercial information consumers received came through advertising. And most advertising was print. Consumers paid for subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and they only read the ads that were interesting to them. Paying for content, which included ads, was normal. And expected. While radio was free, its overall role was limited.

Along Came Television

With the advent of TV, a new proposition was offered to consumers. The deal was simple. You give us your time (to watch commercials) and we’ll give you news and entertainment for free.

Not bad. Particularly since money was scarcer than time for consumers in that era. Home was the dominant center of their lives. The deal television offered was a good one. And, make no mistake, the commercials were intrusive.

But Consumers Were Pretty Smart

Almost immediately they developed sophisticated mental filters. Those filters effectively screened out TV commercials that were not relevant to them. They also quickly developed multi-tasking skills. So they could do all kinds of other things while “watching” TV. In addition, they planned their time so commercial breaks were kind of like a brief intermission.

As a result, even though the commercials were intrusive, only the ones they chose to see got through. But, they still got all the content they wanted for free.

Times Change

The economic reality of that period was that consumers valued money more than time. That has changed. Today, consumer’s lives are more hectic. The pace is quicker. They are better educated. And they spend more time outside their homes. Their time/money equation is different.

And even with the Great Recession of the past few years, most consumers still value their time very highly. In many respects it is more important to them than money. That is a big deal. And it has changed their behavior dramatically.

Commercial Democratization

Today, consumers may choose to receive just the commercial information they want, when they want it, and in the form they want it. And, they are willing to pay for the privilege of doing that. If you doubt that just look at the revenue cable, satellite, mobile and broadband providers are generating.

The Internet, TiVo, mobile, social media, and a host of other technological developments have democratized consumer access to information and entertainment. They are able to pick and choose as they please.

Voice of the Consumer

On top of that, they are not timid about voicing their opinions. Marketers who once completely controlled the conversation with their consumers now must listen carefully to them.

In fact, a number of companies have already established the position of Chief Listening Officer who is right up there in the C suite.

Smart marketers scrupulously monitor social media and the blogosphere to be able to swiftly and appropriately respond to consumer issues. Issues that a generation ago could be easily ignored. But not any more.

In fact, a recent issue of Peppers & Rogers 1 to 1 Magazine headlined the story, “Hasbro Gives Control of its Brand to Consumers.” It will be interesting to see how that works out. But it is further validation that increasingly the consumer is calling the tune. And marketers are dancing to it.

It would seem that this commercial democratization would be an ideal situation. And from a societal standpoint, it is certainly better than market conversations totally controlled by the message sender. But, it is not as simple as it seems.

Wants vs. Needs

All of this raises the question, what is the voice of the consumer expressing? Her wants? Or her needs? There is a big difference.

A want usually comes out of the consumer’s current or past experience. It is usually easily defined. And often quite specific. It generally is in an established product category. Often one that has become subject to commodity pricing.

On the other hand a need is much harder to identify, much less define. A need may not be recognized by the consumer. It can be well beyond his current scope of thinking. An entirely new paradigm.

Faster Horses

The story goes that when Henry Ford was seeking financing to build his Model T his banker asked him, “Have you surveyed consumers to see if they want this new contraption of yours?”

Ford immediately replied, “No, if I asked them that I would be looking for money to raise faster horses.”

The message is clear. Faster horses were the want. Automobiles were the need. An unrecognized need that ultimately changed the lives of everyone.

A Simple Fact

Underlying all of this is a basic truth. None of us knows what we don’t know!

While that may sound a bit silly it is vitally important, so let me repeat it.

None of us knows what we don’t know!

So the question is, without some intrusion, how can the consumer learn what he does not know? And how can he invite in what he is unaware of?

This conundrum is the marketer’s dilemma. And a big challenge for their agency as well.

Like Attracts Like

Taking this thinking a step farther there may be some important social ramifications here. On a societal level we are seeing an increasing tendency for people to cluster with those who hold the same beliefs that they do. Sort of a desire to connect with our own tribe. A fragmentation of the global community.

In this kind of environment it is easy for any of us to only hear what we want to hear. And to shut out that which is different or unusual.

The increase in political polarization may very well have its roots in the tendency to seek validation of what we already believe and to not invite in alien ideas. As well as alien people.

This may account for the rising level of anger in political discourse. And the demonization of those we do not agree with.

Are we in fact moving to isolate ourselves from ideas and products and people who just might benefit us greatly? Even if we can’t immediately see the connection?

If this is the case, shouldn’t we be seriously questioning the balance between invitation and intrusion? And the role of each?

Corporate Conservatism

It seems as if the Great Recession has pushed many marketers into a conservative mode. One in which accumulating cash and playing it safe are the guiding principles. Where new and risky ideas are avoided. And corporate vision may not extend beyond seeing the immediate wants of the consumer.

That doesn’t sound like a climate in which great ideas or great brands are born and flourish. Nor one in which major advancement of humankind takes place.

Corporate conservatism may give a sense of security after having glimpsed the specter of global financial melt-down, but it will not likely lead to robust growth and prosperity.

The harsh fact is that big changes do not happen when marketers are timidly waiting for invitation from consumers.

Like it or not, big positive changes require intrusion

Not the Same

As an aside, the words listening and hearing may appear to be synonymous, but they have some subtle differences. Listening is defined as paying attention, heeding, obeying. As in listening to consumer wants. Listening is passive.

Hearing’s meaning can be deeper, and more empathetic. As in hearing not just what the consumer is saying but what she is feeling and thinking. And then empathetically connecting with that need. Hearing is active.


In a recent interview on CNN, Bob McDonald CEO of Proctor & Gamble reported that they see consumer spending returning. But interestingly, much of that increased spending is on new innovative products. He indicated that during the past few years P&G has had an intense focus on developing innovative products and that effort is now paying off handsomely in the marketplace.

Clearly while P&G listens very carefully to the wants of its customers it also has been successful in identifying needs that its customers didn’t even know they had. They have gone well beyond merely listening.

Thus the messaging of those new products that meet those needs has been de facto intrusive.

And P&G is not alone. Think of the Apple iPad and countless other recent innovative market successes. In every case intrusive market communications was required for the consumer to discover their new need and to act upon it

What This Means to Advertising Agencies

All of this puts agencies today in a difficult position. Many clients are in a reactive mode. While the consumer is actively expressing his wants. And clients are listening carefully to those wants. And then asking their agencies to faithfully respond, maybe even knee-jerk react, to those wants.

With the objective of spurring increased invitation from consumers.

Yet we know that consumers have needs. Needs that they may not yet recognize, much less accept. But fulfilling those needs will enhance their lives as well as opening their pocketbooks. While providing the marketer with accelerated growth and commensurate rewards.

But some intrusion will be necessary to achieve that.

Thus, agencies must walk a fine line. They must achieve a delicate balance between advertising by invitation and advertising by intrusion. Not a simple task. And not one that may be fully in accord with the immediate desires of the client.

Yet, acquiescing to the “let’s wait and see” environment will probably not work for many agencies. Nor will it likely work for most clients.

Half a Step Ahead

Ultimately, the client pays the bills. So an agency cannot get too far ahead of the client’s thinking. But being half a step behind the client won’t be satisfactory, either. Being a compliant order-taker is a sure way of getting fired.

So it seems that the ideal goal is to continually be half a step ahead of each client. Being able to meet their immediate wants while at the same time painting a picture of where innovative – and intrusive – products and marketing can accelerate the growth of their business.

Here are several thoughts that may be helpful in addressing this apparent conflict:

1. Empathetic Hearing
We have abundant data about consumer wants and behavior. And that data must be studied and internalized. In addition cyberspace, particularly social media, provides a wealth of information about consumer experience and opinions. This chatter should be closely monitored, and when appropriate, responded to.

But that is just the beginning. It is really just listening. Its value is in helping us understand where the consumer has been and what she is talking about today. It does not tell us where the consumer might be tomorrow. Or what might be possible.

Empathetic hearing goes beyond that. It is getting into the hearts and minds and souls of the consumer. Seeing them not just economically but humanistically. Having the emotional sensitivity to relate to them as individuals. Individuals who have all the dreams and cares that define the human condition.

And then with all the data and listening input as well as your empathetic hearing, it is time to step back and intuit their needs. Needs that transcend their wants.

2. Innovation
It is easy to think of innovation as a product responsibility of the client. That is only partially true. An innovative agency can help guide the client in product development based on the insights learned through empathetic hearing. Serving as eyes and ears in identifying unrecognized needs.

In addition, even existing and often mundane products can address new needs that go beyond the current consumer want paradigm. And an innovative agency constantly seeks ways in which existing client products can become of greater value in meeting undiscovered consumer needs.

And then helping market those innovative applications intrusively.

3. Dream No Small Dreams
Doing what clients want and doing what they need are two different things. Internal client decisions on what they want can sometimes be myopic.

An important agency role is providing an antidote to a tunnel view. By dreaming. Well beyond the paradigm of today. To a vision of what might be.

Not being afraid of envisioning an automobile when the client wants a horse.

And remember, there is more profit potential for both the client and the agency in meeting a consumer need than in fulfilling a consumer want.

4. Reach Out
Your client’s customers of today may very well not be their customers of tomorrow. Yet that fact is sometimes hard to see.

Often clients, and reactive agencies, focus too intently on their current customer base. While ignoring those who could become future users.

Reaching out to consumers who do not fit the pattern of current customers can frequently yield surprising results.

5. Pervasive Optimism
In the long run, optimism always prevails. During this period of corporate conservatism, one might even say malaise, an optimistic agency that is populated with innovative enthusiastic people can make a big difference in client success.

And optimism in a very subtle but powerful way is intrusive. It lifts the client and the consumer above where they are now to a new and higher level. A level that enhances not only their economic well being but their quality of life as well. Its spirit is infectious.

Looking Ahead

While Wall Street may have led us into the Great Recession consumers will ultimately lead us out. And mirroring P&G’s experience, innovative products and services and the way they are marketed and communicated will be in the vanguard of robust recovery.

Inspiring the consumer to the benefits of those innovations will require a certain amount of intrusive advertising. Advertising by invitation will not be enough.

A Frame of Mind

Back in the 1960s Bobby Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

That’s not a bad mantra for agencies to keep in mind.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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