The Failure of Advertising: The Explanation of Everything

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 10:07 am. Well, a lot of things. ... I was mourning the tragic decline in computer magazines — the U.S. bunch are weak and anemic, a pale shadow of their numerous and many-paged ancestors, and the Brits, while better, are still fading fast — and, obviously, it’s because nobody will pay for those pages and pages of four-color ads to entice us to buy shiny new computer toys. ... I used to think it was the internet that faked them out, and that’s probably some of it, but also in the mix is (1.) the lower cost of computer junk in general (in Britain, they’re twice as expensive) and (2.) the availability of sophisticated giant outlets like Best Buy and CompUSA, where you can go look at these things on the shelves; you don’t need an advertisement to figure-out what’s for sale!

And then it occurred to me, this tragic failure of advertising has explanatory power in other areas.

The Novel

For years, the chattering classes have bemoaned the Death of the Novel (when they’re not celebrating the latest puzzling example). And everybody knows there used to be great novels — I just reread Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and it’s a really good and funny book — but they’ve kind of trickled-away. Why is that?

Advertising of course. Specifically, while novels are still serialized, there is not nearly the market for serialization of new fiction that there was pre-war (that’s 2nd World War, dummy) — financed, of course, by advertising. This serialization market actively sought-out new authors who would entertain their readers. This had two beneficial effects absent today: (1.) authors got money, and (2.) actual readers would get to decide, early-on, what was good/bad.

Rock ’n’ Roll

We all wonder why we’ve been listening to music from the 60s for the last four decades. There’s a simple explanation. In the postwar era, television — and FM radio, for that matter — was displacing AM radio. In a desperate effort to find new markets, the AM broadcasters hit upon emphasizing kids’ music. Radio had traditionally supported popular music, along with general-purpose broadcasting, so it wasn’t that weird a change to go after the market for the new popular music. The advent of the cheap portable AM radio made the medium particularly suitable for kids trying to avoid their censorious parents and other authorities. But advertising paid for it; the constant promotion by AM stations of new artists was fueled by advertising dollars, and when those dollars dried-up, Rock ’n’ Roll froze. I don’t really know what happened to those dollars, but everybody knows it happened; for years you could walk down city streets and hear from every door popular AM radio stations playing the very latest Beatles tunes or whatever — and then it all went away, defeated by color television, FM radio, and who knows what.

But the delusion that Rock ’n’ Roll arose like a mighty spirit in the summer of love or some such nonsense is totally bogus; it was AM radio advertising.