In the Book of Genesis, the ancients built the Tower of Babel in Babylon to a great height with the intent of touching the heavens and asserting the glory of man. This act offended God, who smacked the edifice down and scattered the people across the globe, creating a profusion of languages to further separate the people and insure they didn’t get uppity like that again.
Whether you take this story as fact or allegory, our division as a race stems from fundamentals like language, which inevitably rolls into culture and tradition and all the rest. Go to dinner in Lisbon and try telling your waiter to hold the anchovies and put the dressing on the side and you’ll see just how fundamental a stumbling block language is.
I couldn’t help thinking about this as I scanned Fleishman-Hillard and Harris Interactive’s new Digital Influence Index white paper. With a focus on helping clients drive sales, they demonstrate that of all the media channels that drive consumer decisions, the Internet is far and away the most influential. Further, they contend that marketers are not fully capitalizing on that influence. Places like China, Germany, Japan and the UK even placed information found on the Internet above recommendations from friends and family.
Companies like to trot out research like this to sell the promise of new media and dance on the grave of radio, magazines and television, but that erroneously assumes that people view the internet as a sales medium in the same way they do television or print. They don’t. Commercial messages are readily identifiable by even the least sophisticated viewer in traditional media, with the notable exception of gray areas like branded content and sponsored placements.
By contrast, advertising messages on the web live predominantly in that gray area, as blogger advocacy, paid editorial and search results. Of course there are the ubiquitous banners but no one would identify those as a source of information. If advertisers follow Fleishman-Hillard’s advocated position, they will quickly devalue the conventional perception of the internet as an information source and cheapen it to just another ad platform.
As an industry, we need to take something of a preservationist approach to our efforts here. Even as we seek to use the medium, we need to tread lightly to preserve this information and entertainment centric ecosystem. We must operate differently here than we do in traditional media, serving up our messages in a way that respects the unique perspective people bring to the platform.
Because if we do this right… If we can drive widespread internet access to a worldwide information source, we might do something even more than sell more life insurance or offer a wider variety of pornographic video clips. We might create a universal platform for far flung cultures to experience shared humanity. We might create a technology that erases the separation of language and encourages the exchange of ideas, opinions and experience. With any luck, we might erase the dehumanizing distance that allows one group to demean another with epithets, or a tinhorn warlord to convince a young woman to strap on an explosive suicide vest…
THAT would be freaking great. Oh, and selling stuff would be awesome too.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79