Traditional advertising might be dying — no kidding. Marketers have been talking about the “death” of traditional advertising as early as the late 1990s, when it became obvious that the Internet was here to stay and the digital revolution was upon us. But despite various claims of traditional advertising going away forever, it’s still managed to stick around as a viable marketing medium, and there are even proponents who argue that traditional advertising will never go away.
I won’t claim to settle this debate once and for all in this article (because nobody, despite what they might tell you, can accurately predict the future). Instead, I want to explore some critical considerations for the state and future of traditional advertising, including what a “death” might actually entail, and reasons for and against the possibility for traditional advertising’s true death. Then, I’ll come to the most objective conclusion I can, regardless of whether or not it’s a singularly definitive answer.
What Is “Traditional” Advertising?
The first problem we face is one of definition. By one standard, “traditional” advertising refers to the content of a message, rather than its format. Under this structure, a traditional ad is one that makes a clear attempt to get a user to buy a product, with no other purpose. Digital advertising could count as “traditional,” for example, if it used a similar means of positioning to its target audience. By other definitions, “traditional” advertising refers to a medium, such as radio, billboards, or television commercials.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll lean toward the former definition, as it has the widest reach. However, it does offer some blurry lines; for example, a landing page asking for personal information in exchange for a whitepaper download could be construed as a traditional ad or a form of modern digital marketing depending on its design, intent, and positioning.
How Could It Die?
It’s nearly impossible to define death in terms of absolutes, or in terms of achieving some numerical threshold. For example, most would agree that VHS tapes are a “dead” format in the modern era; however, there are still plenty of people who watch VHS tapes regularly, and there’s no definitive point at which VHS usage “died.” Was it the point at which DVD players outnumbered VHS players? If so, traditional marketing may have already died, based on spending statistics.
As there’s no concrete marker for death, I’ll generally describe the “death” of traditional advertising as occurring when less than half of all companies pursue a form of traditional advertising and more than half of all companies pursue a digital marketing strategy; this doesn’t take total spend into account, and instead focuses on which companies are pursuing which strategies.
Why Is Now Such a Pivotal Time?
There are dozens of factors for why traditional advertising has gradually declined in popularity over the course of the past decade. Millennials increasingly distrust traditional forms of advertising (as well as corporate brands), digital marketing has become more accessible and more affordable, and people are finding better digital substitutes for traditional forms of interaction and entertainment, such as social media, video streaming services, and even remote work.
But what makes the now, 2016, a turning point versus any other year before this? For one, consumer purchase options are evolving in new, unique ways (with unique ad options in tow), such as “buyable pins” on Pinterest and other social/e-commerce hybrids. Brand trust is at all-time-low levels, millennials are getting older, and digital marketing just keeps getting more practical. But all of these have grown on a sliding scale — there isn’t a single “tipping point” that spells the death of the traditional ad.
Key Developments and Considerations
Next, let’s take a look at some key peripheral considerations that could shape the argument in either direction.
· Ad agency profits are dropping. The numbers don’t lie. Even if traditional ad spending is still high, it’s becoming less and less profitable to those providing the service.
· Digital marketing spend is consistently increasing. Again, the data is objective. Year after year, digital marketing spend increases (though this includes PPC ads and other forms of advertising that would fall into one, but not both categories of “traditional ad”).
· Digital marketers stand to gain by traditional ads dying. Digital marketers, like me, have an incentive to say that traditional ads are dying: greater market share. This exists as both motivation and unconscious bias, so I’m not above admitting that my stance may be influenced by this.
· Ad death predictions aren’t new. People have been predicting the end of traditional advertising since 1994 (and maybe even before that). Much like predictions for the end of the world, they never turn out to be true — at least not absolutely.
So what conclusions could I possibly draw from this?
As far as I can tell, the definitions and variables are too ambiguous to form a definitive conclusion about the death of advertising, or even what would constitute such a death to begin with. I do know, however, that traditional ad spending and effectiveness are on a seemingly endless downward trajectory. Instead of traditional ads dying, I think traditional ads are evolving — and just like slowly and gradually, dinosaur-species species evolved into bird-like species, traditional ads will evolve into some new hybrid, or new context, rather than disappearing overnight.
Marketing is constantly undergoing an evolution so slow we’re barely able to perceive it, but the general trends are spelled out for us in historical and present data; it’s almost inevitable that traditional ads, in their current and previous form, will grow to be irrelevant in the coming years, but new innovations may transform them into a more hybridized and effective medium.