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The Tragedy of the Advertising Commons

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Advertising is rife with doomsayers.

It seems that half the commentators out there are speaking about the end of advertising as we know it, or worse. The consensus of such literature is that our present models of advertising are growing inefficient in an increasingly complex media environment populated with communication-saturated consumers.

While there are truths to be found in that opinion, what is missing is a deeper analysis of the forces behind the issues—the ultimate causes.

Instead of offering up the next quick fix or more well-worn analysis, I would like to take a look at the ultimate causes underlying the direction of advertising today; in my mind, they go much deeper than the often-mentioned fracturing of the mass media or the growing trend of consumer cynicism.

The ultimate problem lies in human nature vis-à-vis competition between advertisers, which is being played out today as a variant of the Garrett Hardin's well-known "Tragedy of the Commons."


I hope that through this type of exploration we can begin to move beyond the confused, quick-fix-focused and fad-obsessed behaviors of today's advertising, and begin once again to create sound long-term visions for our advertising. I want us to begin to think about sustainable advertising.

Without this understanding of ultimate causation, we stand prone and are maybe even doomed to keep repeating the same shortsighted missteps that have brought us to our difficult situation.

On the Topic of Commons

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a revolutionary paper titled "The Tragedy of the Commons" in Science (162: pp. 1,243-1,248). I do not use the word "revolutionary" lightly; this short work has formed the theoretical foundation behind almost all subsequent environmental conservation efforts.

Hardin achieved such a lasting mark by providing an economic framework to understand the difference between resources shared by a community (the commons) and individually owned property, which he then used to undermine a deep-seated belief in the sustainability of laissez-faire solutions to our modern problems of pollution and overpopulation.

Hardin put forth the idea that commons are more prone to degradation than privately owned property, since individuals have little incentive to invest in the management and development of common assets compared with assets owned outright, while there is strong incentive to overexploit those shared resources.

Without checks and balances, selfish behaviors by individuals work to degrade the long-term value of shared community assets by a desire to maximize individual gain while externalizing individual costs to the community as a whole.

"The Tragedy of the Commons" begins by exploring the idea that some social problems do not have viable technical solutions, which are solutions that require little change in human values or morality to succeed.

In this discussion, Hardin quickly focuses on the issue of unconstrained population growth in relation to the finite resources of our world, which he understands to have no technical solution since any technical gains created by increases to population capacity are only delaying an eventual population crisis.

Despite any conceivable technology efforts, there will always be limits to how large a population can grow based on the finiteness of available resources. As Hardin puts it, "A finite world can support only a finite population."

This discussion of the viability of technical solutions allows Hardin to then take on the classic Adam Smith-inspired idea that the choices of individuals in a collective will naturally lead to an optimal solution to issues of resource management within a finite resource pool.

In this statement, Hardin envisioned potential situations where the laissez-faire approach will lead to suboptimal population patterns that ultimately are not sustainable and are highly prone to catastrophic collapse. In particular, Hardin explored the problem of common land use first describes by William Forster Lloyd in the early 1800s, from which Hardin goes on to deftly widen this description to encompass a wider variety of shared resources composing our environment.

Lloyd noted that common grazing lands used by herders are problematically managed. Each herder gains greatly by grazing additional animals on the common land, while all herders ultimately share the cost of this grazing. The rational herdsman will be inclined to take full advantage of the situation of common lands, since the benefits of use are strong to the individual while the costs of exploitation belong to the community.

This herdsman will bear only a fraction of the cost of any overgrazing resulting from the feeding of his animals on the common land, so there is little reason not to exploit this resource to its fullest.

In this way, a herder is able maximize his gain while limiting his exposure to individual harm that would come from the land actually being outright owned by the herder. The inevitable result of this drama is the tendency of common assets to degrade as individuals overexploit them while selfishly not reinvesting in them.

Hardin goes on to expand this drama of the tragic herder to the totality of our world's natural resources, which are under the pressure from increasing pollution and population stress. These situations present a strong parallel to Lloyd's original herding example, since the environment can easily be considered commons that everyone can freely use.

Trouble results when the aggregate of individual environmental impacts via use and pollution begins to exceed the environment's capacity to recover from the damage.

As this kind of environmental crisis grows, individuals are not naturally inclined to take on the burden of reversing the overuse of the environmental commons, since it would entail individual costs that will return only a fractional gain to the individual, because these gains will be shared across the entire community.

In this way, the degradation of the environment, if left unchecked, will have a natural and directional trajectory via selfish human nature towardsdeeper crisis and further degradation.

Hardin concludes that the only viable solution to this dysfunctional path is one of agreeing as a community to limit freedoms such that common assets will be managed in a rational and sustainable manner: i.e., providing limits to individual reproduction, pollution and resource use. This requires the institutionalization and enforcement of individual responsibility for mitigating impacts to the common environment.

In Hardin's mind, the sustainability of activities capable of taxing the environment can only be created by self-imposed conservation measures well in advance of a potential and evitable crisis. The intensification of efforts to extract more efficiency from a stressed environment will only lead to a delay of a crisis and in many cases will greatly deepen the impact of the crisis when it does eventually occur.

Advertising in a Finite World

This is all very interesting… but the reader is probably asking, "How does this exactly relate to advertising?"

Whether we realize it or not, advertising is all about commons, but these commons are not defined by land or other tangible property.

The commons for advertising exists in the collective minds of our advertising audience where our brands ultimately reside and consumer decisions are made. Like our environment, consumer attention to our communications is a finite and shared resource that we all too often treat as if it is inexhaustible—with little concern over the negative impact of our collective efforts.

The main challenge of advertising lies in its inability to control a consumer's purchasing process beyond just communicating to that consumer. We cannot force consumers to buy a product or subscribe to a service.

Adverting is all about influencing, so we cannot truly control the consumer minds we are trying to affect. These minds are not "ownable" by a marketer, which makes them fair game through advertising to any marketer willing to pay for access via some medium.

Any given point of communication can be controlled for a price by an advertiser, but the consumer's mind and the total media access to that consumer reasonably cannot.

Media exposure today is so pervasive that the average person experiences 11.7 hours of media exposure a day, according to the recently released iDMAa's Middletown Media Study. This jumps to 15.4 hours per day when media multitasking is teased apart.

With so much media exposure, it is impossible to monopolize a consumer's attention though advertising, while it is very easy to lose this attention in the wild orgy of other messages out there.

This lack of direct control by advertisers is not problematic in an environment of low advertising competition. But as more advertisers begin to compete to reach a finite number of consumers, the system will begin to exhibit increasing levels of communication stress. A marketer will experience this stress as a growing inefficiency in his or her communication efforts as consumers' attentions become diffuse and difficult to capture as a result of more and more competing marketing messages.

There is a limit to which the human mind can process information; beyond it, the mind starts ignoring stimuli. That limit is easy reached when the competition for consumer eyes and ears is strong.

Advertisers will tend to manage this stress by seeking an intensification of their advertising efforts to better reach consumers, and hopefully offset the losses created by the growing communication inefficiency. Success through intensification will directly benefit the advertisers doing the intensification, while it degrades the whole advertising environment by increasing the overall communication chatter in an already saturated environment.

Sounds familiar….

Like the environmental situation described in Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons," the benefits of advertising intensification are returned right to the advertiser who engages in them, while externalizing the negative impacts of this communication to the entire universe of competing advertisers.

We should therefore expect that a rational-minded advertiser would eagerly engage in any intensifying efforts that make economic sense, with little concern over how their actions might negatively be affecting the overall communication landscape. After all, the benefits to the advertiser of any particular intensification effort should strongly outweigh the costs felt from that effort in terms of degrading the communication environment, as these costs are spread across an industry.

The costs of our decisions might appear to disappear to almost nothing in this scenario. But in reality they are merely shifted away from the point of decision-making and reformed as a common cost for all. Each individual act of intensification will aggregate, with similar intensifying efforts by other advertisers, to create an overall degrading trend marked by increasingly vicious cycles of communication stress followed by further advertising intensification.

These cycles should be reasonably expected to end in some form of system collapse when things become fully intractable for either marketers or consumers, since there are only finite gains potentially available, despite all conceivable intensification effort.

Further, the system should be expected to have limits to the stress it can endure. That is, unless external forces rewrite the rules of the game before such a collapse occurs, or there is some form of industry-wide self-regulation.

The trouble with advertising today, simply put, is that there is little reason for advertisers to not push communication saturation to its breaking point. This is not good for the long-term future of our efforts and brands, and it certainly is not good for our consumers.

The irony of the gains won by intensification is that they are rarely defensible long-term and therefore rarely sustainable. The tendency in a stressed advertising environment such as ours is for competing advertisers to saturate new opportunities as they emerge, such that the gains initially garnered through the exploitation of new opportunities are soon lost as other advertisers en masse try to imitate any documented success.

The situation exhibits the feel of a war of attrition, with single marketers winning successes by doing something new, which quickly brings on a hoard of competing marketers to level these singular gains through imitation.

We have seen this trend in the wake of the BMW Films campaign, as countless other brands have attempted to mimic BMW's revolutionary work. We have also seen it in the almost pathological drive a few years ago to get relationship-marketing programs for CPG products because it worked for Pampers. The bright futures offered up by these opportunities were soon dulled by herds of imitators trying in vain to taste similar success.

This pattern of declining returns from new opportunities presents three problems for advertising today:

  • The saturation of opportunity tends to deepen the experience of media overload felt by consumers and therefore furthers the tragedy of the advertising commons. This is especially true for any subsequent poor executions, which act to speed the souring of the overall acceptance of a new advertising model by consumers.

  • The potential rewards of exploiting new marketing models are significantly degraded for advertisers, since long-term gains become problematic in this paradigm. If the program does not pay out quickly, it can soon become a loss for a marketer as the initial magnitude of the opportunity fades.

  • The focus on short-term gains additionally leads to a shortening of our planning horizon for brands, which classically are understood to be longstanding entities. I worry that an increasing short-term focus for our brand stewardship will only create weaker brands that are not managed to endure the test of time, but only the tests of the moment.

The darkest realization coming from this exploration of the advertising commons is that one should expect these problems to deepen if they are left unchecked. We have not seen the worst of it. Efforts at slowing the advertising tide such as FCC's "Do Not Call" list can make an impact by controlling some of the flow of marketing messaging cluttering our marketplace, but to date these efforts have not been potent or wide reaching enough to greatly slow, let alone reverse, the trends.

Next Steps

One solution to the tragedy of the advertising commons lies in self-regulation by advertisers. But I am not optimistic. As an industry, advertising does not have a solid history of acting together altruistically to preserve the wellbeing of our advertising base. Nor does the advertising industry lend itself well to the creation of consensus among its diverse participants.

I am, however, heartened by efforts of the likes of P&G to set a consumer-friendly industry standard with strong "permissioning" for relationship marketing, rather than advocating looser standards that are just convenient for the advertiser. This proposal by P&G is nicely forward looking. What's more, P&G is large enough to perhaps force this good idea into being.

The owners of the mass media channels themselves seem more likely candidates for effecting positive changes to the rules by which the advertisers compete, and therefore altering the forces behind the tragedy of the commons. By playing with the ways that media is sold and placed, the media channel owners could radically rework the means by which advertisers relate to consumers and each other, which in turn could alter the entire dynamic of advertising for the better.

The major difference between advertisers and media channel owners is that these owners actually own the media channels (they are not commons), and therefore they have more economic incentive not to degrade the audiences to these channels, according to Hardin's framework.

In this sense, media owners are freed to an extent from economic forces that drive advertisers to saturate the media with their messages. Although it might not sound romantic, but the future of advertising probably rests solidity in the hands of media architects tweaking how advertising is sold. The days of the creative making the advertising are probably near their end, as sound media planning begins to eclipse everything else in the process.

Some out there would be inclined to solve this problem by asking advertisers to voluntarily limit their exploitation of the advertising commons. This type of solution sounds good at first, but it is destined for failure since it will benefit only those who do not listen to the request.

The key to unraveling the issues behind the tragedy of the commons is to embrace the idea that it is fueled by a competitive drama. Asking players in this drama to opt out of competitive behavior for the benefit of the industry is merely asking them to give a potential advantage to their competitors who do not to comply with a voluntary change.

The competitive drama can only be arbitrarily reshaped by an agreement by all players to play by new rules and some ability to assure that they abide by that agreement.


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Matthew Syrett is a marketing consultant/analyst—a hybrid marketer, film producer, technologist, and statistician. He was vice-president of product development at the LinkShare Corporation and vice-president at Grey Interactive. Reach him via syrett (at) gmail (dot) com.

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