Direct response and the coarsening of culture

Direct response advertising to strangers is demanding. You pay for your click or you pay for your stamp and then you get a shot at making a sale. No sale, no revenue, no revenue, no more stamps.

As a result, direct marketers sometimes race to the bottom. They sell what sells the first time, and use the words that work right now. If the largest conversion rate is for a flat belly diet, then it's the flat belly diet that gets sold. The public gets what it wants.

And what does the mass public want? Shortcuts. Discounts. Claims. No room for subtlety or even innovation.

Yes, there are great products sold by direct marketing, but in most cases, those products were dreamed up and refined and beloved in a less measurable world.

In a world that was 90% retailers and pr and word of mouth, the direct response around the edges was no big deal. It brings us the Veg-o-matic and bald spot hairspray, but it doesn't really direct the culture.

Here's the thing: going forward, just about all the growth in marketing spend is happening on the direct response side. Google ads, email campaigns–these are measured in percentage points and in clicks. Without the tastemaking sensibilities of the buyer at Bloomingdale's or the quality guys at Fisher Price, the urge to compromise/shorten/cheapen/overpromise/dumb down is almost overwhelming.

It's already happening to TV and music. (The label doesn't have to please the music-loving program director. It has to please the YouTube clicking teen.) It's likely to happen to your industry soon as well.

People who have never sold advertising sometimes point out that a new form of advertising is better because it's more measurable, because it provides exact data instead of clumsy diary systems. Do you see that most advertisers don't actually want better data? If you're not sure what's working, you can't get blamed. And since you can't get blamed, you get to decide, to be creative, to create stories and fables, instead of merely being Mr. Ronco selling the bassomatic, at the mercy of anyone with a telephone.

Measurable isn't always the only thing that matters.