Green River, Wyo., must be a great town. I’ve never been, but I like the cut of its jib. You see, in Green River, you can be arrested for intruding on someone’s life to sell them something. It’s been that way since 1931, when one too many Fuller Brush salesmen knocked on the doors of one too many railroad night-shift workers. Citizens marched on city hall, and Ordinance 175 was born. In communities across the U.S., similar bylaws are called “Green River Ordinances” to this day and, if you ask me, they make the world a better place. It mystifies me that anybody calling himself a marketer could still think the way to win customers is to start by pissing them off.
Yet the belief persists. One face-palm-inducing example early this summer was a technology that broadcasts audio advertising to sleepy train commuters through vibrations in their skulls, delivered as they rest their heads on the windows. It’s an especially creepy instance, but by no means an outlier. Consider Sony, who attracted controversy a while back for two advertising technology patent applications: one that forcibly interrupts video games mid-play with ads (even when the games were purchased) and another that compels viewers to interact with TV commercials—the patent application featured as an example the tossing of a digital pickle at the hamburger in a fast-food ad—to make it end sooner. These are certainly more unsettling experiences than a pop-up in a web browser or a fake flash mob or even a knock on the door, but they come from the same cynical, predatory and fundamentally stupid belief that any attention is good attention, and that marketing is just a matter of what you can get away with.
For a while there, it seemed as if we’d got over this way of thinking. For a good part of the postwar 20th century, the best marketers obsessed about earning attention. Consumers liked to complain that their TV shows were interrupted by ads, but even they quietly knew better. The truth was that their attention paid for those shows, in what advertising guru Terry O’Reilly calls “the Great Unwritten Contract.” If you’re going to take people’s time, he says, you have to give them something in return. The Beverly Hillbillies, say, or M*A*S*H. Though it’s popular to believe otherwise, advertising was always predicated on a certain wariness of the consumer, as though they’d fly away if a brand made any sudden moves, or march on city hall if it was rude.
Now, not so much. The growing de-professionalization of marketing has produced a few good things and a lot of bad ones, but among the worst is the loss of its institutional memory. Marketing’s new-age carpetbaggers seem to believe that the consumer will grant them an infinite number of chances, that she will open the door again and again, with no memory of how disappointed or irritated she was the last time. They haven’t been at it long enough to see how slowly but surely respect for a brand drains away as negative experiences accumulate, and how profitability soon follows.
All is not yet lost, mind you. The Great Unwritten Contract has a fresh crop of evangelists in practitioners of content marketing, which is based on the idea that branded communication should do better than be wrapped in something valuable; it should be inherently so. Meanwhile, more advertising than ever is viewed voluntarily, and comes with things like “Like” buttons and view counts so marketers can’t ignore their duty to be, at the very least, entertaining. Even if attracting eyes and ears has become more of a game than an art, it’s still something the best marketers worry about. Attention is the gold of our age, and there remain some who would rather work for it than steal it.
And then there are those who would run commercials in your skull, or make you mime throwing a pickle. Somebody needs to target them with telemarketing or unsolicited e-mail, or maybe stop by their houses for a chat. Whatever it takes to convince them that involuntary attention isn’t successful marketing, it’s trespassing. And you can get arrested for that.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award.