I spent much of the second half of 2014 in the USA, mostly around the Seattle area. Over there, there’s no doubt that you’re in the home of consumerism, especially as the holiday season gets into high gear.

The Americans sure do love to spend, so there’s a barrage of advertising and promotion that makes New Zealand look and feel a touch tame. Every niche is covered by more brands and products than anyone from a little island at the bottom of the world could imagine.

But from an advertising perspective, it seems to have reached the saturation point that many commentators have been expecting for a while. There’s just so much advertising that it’s become tough to interface with most of it, let alone all of it. I paid close attention to the way the people I stayed with interacted with the advertising they were subjected to (and yes, I do mean “subjected to”, American advertising isn’t particularly good).

Admittedly, these people make up an infinitesimal fraction of the total audience but they’re also a pretty typical cross section of American consumers. Their habits are interesting to say the least. Effectively, it seems they’ve become experts at ignoring the vast majority of advertising, and cherry picking only the tiniest sliver of what captures their attention. They tune out television advertising the same way a politician tunes out a poll result he doesn’t like. The TV becomes a white noise generator while they multi-screen away to smartphones and tablets. No one even seems to register most of the magazine or newspapers ads. Then we have the vast piles of circulars that go unnoticed except for the ones that address a specific need – picture the old-fashioned scene of a housewife clipping coupons from a catalogue – she’s not cutting out the ones she doesn’t need. That’s how these people consume their media – by ignoring most of it.

I’ve said that this was already the case when it came to TV advertising in New Zealand, and I’ve looked at multi-screening in the past. The industry loves the idea that consumers are still seeing their advertising somewhere, and as long as that’s happening, they’re adamant that it’s getting results. It isn’t, at least not as much as you think, if it ever did.

"Ah this show ain't no good!" - Elvis loved television but he sure hated advertising.

"Ah this show ain't no good!" - Elvis loved television but he sure hated advertising.

We all knew this was coming. Logically, no one can take in every single advertising message they encounter, so a new specialisation skill is developing. Please don’t kid yourself that your advertising isn’t being affected by this enhanced indifference. Unless you’re reaching your consumers and reaching them in a meaningful way around the time they’re contemplating a purchase, then you’re wasting much of your money.

Frankly, this has always been the case, but it’s truer than ever today. You used to think you were wasting 50% of your advertising dollars, I believe that’s now a very conservative estimate.

I was asked if people could live in a world without advertising. I’d say that in some areas of the developed world, that’s already the case. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean anyone is seeing it.

Mr. Advertiser, I hate to break it to you but there’s a very good chance that unless you’re doing something unique, then you’re just part of the noise. And no, you can’t overcome this problem by throwing more money at it. You need to think outside the rhombus, and if your advertising agency can’t do that, then you’re seriously going to get left behind; maybe not next year but pretty damn soon. If your agency is telling you to do what you’ve always done, or to replicate what your competition is doing (but with some minor spin to it), then you shouldn’t walk away, you should run.