The last place you’d expect to discover a map to navigate the future of the content-advertising landscape would be a book about the golden age of radio. But damn it all to hell, there it is on the concluding 12 pages of Cynthia B. Meyers’ new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.
Not to discourage you from reading Meyers’ first 281 pages about the co-evolution of broadcasting and advertising before excavating her new media insights, but this is one of those books that demands to be read backwards — conclusion first, historical arguments and research later. In Meyers’ view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future’s corner.
The commercial Web that permeates our culture today was revolutionary because it allowed news and entertainment content to migrate from the lockdown of the radio and TV networks, as well as from print. But that migration was already in progress when the first banner ad (for AT&T) ran on Hotwire.com in late 1994. A decade before, cable had given advertisers new venues to place their TV bets, and VCRs (and later DVRs) gave viewers the power to time-shift and edit ads out of their consumption. The advent of videotape and discs further liberated audiences from advertising’s hold.
The break-up of the old three TV networks hegemony was accelerated by the emergence of digitized online distribution platforms for news and entertainment. Audiences — once prisoners of their living rooms — could now partake of the media menu anywhere they toted a mobile device.
Always nimble in the face of change, advertisers coped with the transitions by doing more of what they were doing in the first place. They purchased ad-space near the very most popular content (Super Bowl, Olympics, top-rated shows) to maximize each ad’s reach and also placed more of their ads near specialized content (travel, cars, beauty, fashion, home and design, food, finance, sports) where the ad message might more predictably be turned into a purchase. Where airtime turned cheap, advertisers created infomercials, those deceptive ads clothed in the video grammar of news or entertainment. As new platforms like the Web and mobile arrived, advertisers adjusted their pitches accordingly.