The Rabbit is Dying: Rebooting Advertising in 21st Century Culture

Written By Hadji Williams, Advertising Copywriter
Edited By Emory Brown, Medill IMC Class Of 2016

Published on 10/21/2015


A while back, an old friend asked me — one long-time ad creative to another — “What’s wrong with the ad industry? Why is so much advertising still so…bad?”

I tried to give him an insightful and informed answer but I kept getting sidetracked by my ongoing quest to get my Vine and Instagram follower counts up. I probably would’ve accomplished both a bit sooner had Snapchat not come along. But if we’re being completely honest here, those tools will be obsolete in a few months.

Now what does any of this have to do with the winding road of woes that is modern-day advertising? Absolutely nothing — which is precisely why it’s the best way to begin answering my good friend’s question.

Let’s rewind to 2011: Tim Challies, a renowned religious author drops his tome “The Next Story: Life and Faith after The Digital Explosion.” In it he posits that technology isn’t additive or even accessorizing in its relation to humanity, but rather technology is actually ecological, biological even.1 Challies challenged that advancements such as smartphones, social media and apps have become so influential in human development that they are literally altering how our brains work, specifically how they process information, and by extension, how we communicate.

Challies Isn’t Alone

In January 2015, researchers at University of Missouri published findings noting that iPhone users can suffer from “cell phone separation”2 — measurable negative side effects of being deprived of their cellphones for periods of time. Findings noted that the effects were so great that serious psychological and physiological effects were noted, including poor performance on cognitive tests.

That’s not a “kids these days/get off my lawn” generational thing. We’re now talking about a new relationship with technology that’s so symbiotic among an increasingly larger group of people that it’s making them fundamentally different in how they relate to everything — and everyone — around them. They are the foundation of a new society, one in which advertising is the new outsider.

Previously, the advertising industry has been the rabbit in a communications distance race. It set a breakneck pace fueled by “The Word” — linear thinking, wordbased communications and mindsets: TV, print, radio, outdoor, direct mail. The Word was how people thought, expressed thoughts, shared thoughts and imagined things.

But in the last 25 years The Word has slowly begun coming back to the pack of “The Screen” — those technological advancements Challies wrote of.

The Screen has never known phones to not be smart, music to not be an audio file or TV sets as the sole source of television. Furthermore, The Screen has never known grammar to not be relative, or words themselves to be anything but optional in communication. The Screen has literally made itself into an app, hardware, software and an accessory all at the same time.

Advertising Talk

Awhile back, The Word would have these things called “upfronts.” Upfronts are the Coachella of the advertising world — Hollywood previews of shows to attract advertiser buy-in upfront. The networks give you their seasonal schedule, flights, CPMs, clicks and views, etc. Everything is parsed out as if it’s all an actual event, has an expiration date like milk, all temporary, all two-way traffic…

But Then a Funny Thing Happened

When no one was looking, The Screen took the expiration dates off the programs and content. It PDF’d and linked all the words, blew up all the shelf space and replaced it with bandwidth and gigabytes. The Screen decided there’s no such thing as fall season, reruns, summer replacements or even blockbusters. For The Screen there is only what we see now, what we haven’t seen yet and what we want to see later.

Screens don’t need upfronts because for The Screen, content is timeless. Channels are little more than arbitrary slots scattered along a winding dial of no consequence. And once the content is uploaded or streamed, it’s in flow — every direction, every place. It’s a continual wave that you simply dive into, ride as you will, then hop out as you please. All that matters is accessibility.

Advertising doesn’t flow with The Screen. It can’t. It’s Sanskrit — a dead language to The Screen. It’s a serve-andvolley, first-us-then-you mechanical exchange built for The Word. But The Word is aging out. And this, to bring it back to our original question, is why so much advertising is so bad.

To a Screen, the whole world is content in flux and flow. And content doesn’t flow one headline at a time, or one strategic execution at a time, but rather in engagement. It’s a flow that invites The Screen to engage, co-opt, transpose and react as it sees fit. That’s the only way The Screen can embrace messages. It has to be done on The Screen’s terms. Not the client’s. Not The Word’s.

So what do we do now? Well, here are a few tips:

(1) Stop Interrupting

Interruption is dead. Commercial breaks only ever worked because audiences had no alternative options while advertisers controlled the content flow. Well The Screen has long since fixed that canard. Now when you interrupt, they tune you out.

(2) Remember You’re Not in Charge

Brands must stop telling users of The Screen when, where and how it will be engaged. When users want to buy something, they will find the info and research, and then analyze, decide and commit. They will rely on other Screens, trusted recommendations and other trusted sources. But interrupt my show/ article/movie/music/advertising campaign? Absolutely not.

(3) Stop Chasing

Stop latching onto every app, device and trend. Stop being a follower. Too many brands have spent years on Twitter and Facebook, yet still have nothing to say and don’t want to listen. But hey, at least they’re in the game, right? Right.

(4) Kill the Upfronts

The Screens killed the interruptive model of advertising. Cook your content now. Serve your content now. The Screen will do the rest.

(5) Connect With Communities — Not Channels

Agencies still think it’s about channels. Wrong. Every Screen — both physical and biological — is its media outlet, and its own curator, its own content creator, as well as its own celebrity spokesperson. The Screens have their own communities. Connect with them. It’s not top-down; it’s hand-to-hand.

(6) Follow the Tech

Tech hates advertising too. Tech serves The Screens, not brands. Always has; always will. Apple, Amazon and Netflix followed The Screens; Blockbuster, Microsoft, Yahoo!, etc. followed The Word — and look who’s winning.

(7) Give Your Story?

Every brand claims to have a narrative. Yet like “digital guru” or “social media rockstar,” “narrative” is an empty cliché. Few brands have an actual personality or persona; fewer still are willing to tell the story they actually do have to tell.

A true narrative ignores the timeframe and the medium and the quarterly projections and just gets to the business of telling the tale. Every good story, every welltold story, engages the audience knowing full well they won’t take it all in during one sitting or in one place. And when the story’s told right, you can start, pick up, put down and pick up again, and you still get it by the time it’s over.

So that’s where our industry is at: Our work goes much deeper than ads, which are still digging their own graves. The story is the life force now. The tape hasn’t been broken, but we’re definitely hitting the backstretch. Now let’s see what kind of kick the advertising game has left in it. [END]




  1. Challies, Tim. The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
  2. Hurst, Nathan. “iPhone Separation Linked to Physiological Anxiety, Poor Cognitive Performance, MU Study Finds.” MUNews. University of Missouri News Bureau, 8 Jan. 2015.
Hadji Williams Hadji Williams is an award-winning advertising copywriter and brand consultant, having worked with numerous Fortune 500 brands. He spent seven years as an adjunct advertising professor at Columbia College Chicago. He is also an author of both fiction and non-fiction fare.
IMG_7080 Emory sharpened his creative teeth as an award-winning creative director and writer. Working with many esteemed clients, his portfolio of work ranges in genre from conservative to ultra-modern. He holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing communications from Columbia College Chicago.

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