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The 50-year anniversary of interactive advertising. Wait. What? - Steve Biegel

Steve Biegel

The 50-year anniversary of interactive advertising. Wait. What?


The digital-age did not give birth to interactive advertising. Just as selfies did not introduce the world to hand-held photography.

How’s that for a head-slapper?

Nope, that puppy (interactive advertising) was out of the litter long before Al Gore invented the Information Super Highway.

Okay, so what’s the story? Who was the first one to realize advertising was more effective if it actually included consumer participation, rather than the passive experience of a traditional brand monologue?

It was some nut from San Francisco, named Howard Gossage. Now, there are many nuts from San Francisco, but none quite as brilliant as the aforementioned nut. Howard influenced the next fifty years of brand to consumer communication with his work. And can still teach us a lot today. Now, I don’t mean to call Mr. Gossage a nut in a disparaging way. (I suspect he’s been called a lot worse). People who change paradigms are labeled “nuts” because they look at things differently, and solve problems in unconventional ways. Boy, did he ever? And when they do the names people call them usually turn into terms like “genius” or “eccentric.”

Gossage created contests, consumer response mechanisms, and all sorts of whackery primarily in newspaper print ads to draw a consumer into the communication, and therefore be part of the brand experience. In 1966, he was well ahead of his generation of MadMen. And may still be ahead of many of us who moil in this business, today.

When discussing conversion ratios, analytics, and “best practices” for sharing branded communications meant to persuade an audience, we should remember that the content is still what has to persuade the consumer.

Has the persuasion gone out of the influence business?

Frank Guzzone, a seasoned and highly-regarded Creative Director from the art side takes it further “It has to be about ideas. Without an idea that plants a seed in a consumer’s head about your brand or product, it’s like talking to yourself.” Frank is no slouch himself in this industry. He’s grinded it out at creative hotbeds like Angotti, Thomas, Hedge and Ogilvy and Mather. He’s won Cannes Lions, Clio’s, One Show Pencils and all kinds of industry hardware, which he now uses as book ends for his vast Communication Arts collection.

Yet, digital wunderkinde, Frank Russo, Director of Digital at Creative Image advertising and Design snaps, “Today, in the digital-mobile world, it’s not just what you offer in content, it’s how you deliver it, instantly and as organically as possible. No one wants to see fluff.” He continues, “And, we reach massive amounts of people where they live, which is on their phone and computer. End of story.”

So, is it the content, or is it the delivery system (media) that helps a brand connect with a consumer in a meaningful way?

Well, what would Gossage say? Gossage grabbed a reader, who was flipping through a newspaper, and got them to do a puzzle, or create a mad lib, or fold a  paper plane, by hand, mind you! But, it’s because the content was so inventive and rich with conceptually persuasive communication, coated with entertaining sugar glaze, that this interactivity was possible. People wanted to participate in the media platform (the newspaper), because it was fun and interesting to do! So, Gossage would agree it’s well-crafted content that sparks a union between brand and consumer. If it wasn’t a newspaper, it would be something else.

So, the question for today is, how do you make a consumer, who does not want to be sold something, fall in love with your brand enough to buy its product or service, when you only have 140 characters, or a streaming timeline to tell a brand story?

It goes back to content. Gossage made them laugh. He made them think. He made them feel. He reached a nerve in a consumer deep enough through his creatively concocted content that he changed their interactive behavior with the media. No small task. In any generation.

Can this work in the 24/7 streaming age of digital information? I think it can. But, it takes more than a social media program. There has to be a more comprehensive approach than simply producing an interactive contest on Facebook or Instagram, even if its brilliant. It takes a complete 360 degree cross-platform program, where content delivery systems like long form video and other rich mediums with depth can be utilized to house and deliver a persuasive brand promise in a consumer, and then be reinforced with messaging in the more immediate and time-sensitive mediums like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Whereas Gossage could do it all within a newspaper ad campaign, we now need more mediums to persuade a consumer to join a brand journey. But, that’s only because people get their information and connect differently now, than they did fifty years ago… in the age of interactivity.

We have the media tools. We have the talent to create provocative content.

Time to apply them, as a nut from San Francisco would.

Happy Anniversary!

For more on Howard Gossage here’s his wikipedia page: