BrainTrust Query: Why the Medium is Increasingly the Message

Discussion
Jul 25, 2011

Marshall McLuhan, who was born 100 years ago last week (July 21, 1911), authored “the medium is the message” in 1964. He explained that the nature of media influences how messages are received without receivers realizing it. For example, motion pictures require less interpretation by viewers than radio.

Digital marketing validates the same point in a completely new way. Current day technologies spawned by the internet allow messages to be fleeting, even expendable, as media platforms test and refine them.

The 1960s, the era of Mr. McLuhan’s writing, was a pre-clutter age. Good copy could break through because channels were not yet saturated with noise and consumers were not encumbered with tuning out annoyances.

Traditional marketing anointed messages as king. Magazine ads are a perfect example. Text-rich pages catered to a patient readership. Copy was conversational, emotion won over promotion, and benefits won over features. Virginia Slims weren’t thinner cigarettes, they were womens’ liberation embodied.

The age that began in the 90s and continues today has been called the “unbundled era,” the “cyber era” and the “audience era.” The biggest change brought on by digital media has been time compression. Both the creative cycle and the feedback loop can now be instant.

Shiv Singh, head of digital for Pepsico Beverages, last year stated to Internet Week, “We have to go from strategy to execution, not in months, but in a matter of seconds.”

Marketers like Harry Gold of Overdrive challenge planners to abandon the campaign altogether and embrace the channel. Campaigns have points of no return; they either work or they don’t. Channels go on forever; they can be measured, evolved and improved.

Access to customer data makes instant personalization possible. Retailers have a special ability to identify customer needs and deliver relevant offers, both through digital channels and direct from store associates.

Digital marketing has anointed the medium as king. Marketers can diversify their investment in messages rather than being forced to make big bets. This has yielded a law-like pattern: routine messages channeled intelligently beat intelligent messages channeled routinely.

When advertisers adopt “medium” thinking, digital shopper media generate higher returns for less risk.

Mr. McLuhan coined the “global village” and envisioned the worldwide web almost 30 years before it existed. He wouldn’t recognize marketing today. But his predictions about the reign of medium over message have never been truer than today’s digital era.

Discussion Questions: Is the statement “the medium is the message” more true today than in the era it was coined? What are the opportunities and challenges of digital media as a medium?

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19 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Why the Medium is Increasingly the Message"

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Doug Stephens
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Doug Stephens
6 years 4 months ago

The upside of a digital world is that it’s never been easier to create and publish content. The downside is that this very ease of content creation has created unprecedented marketing clutter that’s tremendously difficult to break through with anything less than a remarkable message. So many companies are simply moving boring, tired messages over to digital formats believing that the medium, as McLuhan put it, will reinvigorate them. What they fail to see is that the medium itself has actually raised the bar of creativity for the marketer.

Ian Percy
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6 years 4 months ago
May I quietly though proudly point out that McLuhan was a Canadian! But I digress…. I heard him speak at university and remember his point that “you can’t preach the gospel over a microphone.” The medium contradicted the message. Imagine what he’d say now. So what does the digital “medium” say? I keep thinking of that TV commercial where the daughter criticizes her parents for their “19” friends on Facebook. Of course her parents are out going on trips, dancing, canoeing, having a ball. She, meanwhile, is at home alone looking at her 698 “friend’s” walls. Home looking at the… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
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6 years 4 months ago

This is precisely what McLuhan was talking about. As our media choices grow exponentially (check out the ads you can see right now!) our interactions with them change fundamentally. The implications for global consumer brands is significant. If I managed a Sunday-circular company right now I’d be freaking out.

Joan Treistman
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
“The medium is the message” is truer today, because the medium defines the sender and message recipient. Who you reach on twitter, on Facebook on “60 Minutes” can vary, of course. And since consumers choose their media, what they see and read in their medium of choice is an aspect of selective perception. However, in order for the communication to achieve its intent, agencies and marketers must understand and plan for those on the receiving end and develop a message which that target will find personally relevant. In an age when message placement can cost nothing, effective executions are often… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
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6 years 4 months ago

The statement possibly has more meaning today than when Mr. McLuhan coined it. Today we are tied at the hip to our media getting messages instantly, rather than over the TV or radio channels as we chose to listen. For the most part, we do not even have to choose to “listen” today. It comes automatically and we have the notification beep that someone wants us to read something.

Barry Horwitz
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Barry Horwitz
6 years 4 months ago

The ironic thing about commenting on this article is that even my adding this comment, in its own way, contributes to the clutter we disdain. When even the NY Times and Wall Street Journal articles invite comments–and they receive many–most of which come, unedited, from unknown people with unknown credentials. So we continue to have more and more of less clear and easily verifiable value…and with that, the ever-growing challenge of getting a message through the clutter.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
When discussing McLuhan, it’s perhaps instructive to look past the cliched lines like “the medium is the message” and “global village” to see what he was really saying. With this in mind, here are the opening lines of his 1951 classic, “The Mechanical Bride”: “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state… Read more »
Bill Emerson
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Bill Emerson
6 years 4 months ago

The message is not truer, only more impactful. The recent announcement of the liquidation of Borders, felled primarily for failing to adapt to the new medium (e-readers), is stark evidence. The opportunity is that anyone, anywhere can get their message heard. The challenge is, ironically, the same. There is no channel control, so marketers have to work harder and harder to stand out.

Julia Staffen
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Julia Staffen
6 years 4 months ago
McLuhan’s statement is as true today as it was when it was coined. Never before have there been so many different choices and uses for media. Just think about the number of websites and social networks you visit on a daily basis, both at your computer and on your mobile phone. This also makes the medium the most complex and strategic part of a campaign, shaping its success (or failure). The opportunity lies in the ability to create, measure and iterate quickly and cost-effectively and to instantly personalize a campaign based on the user’s behaviors and likes. The challenge (among… Read more »
Joel Rubinson
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6 years 4 months ago

The medium is the message for more reasons today than back when McLuhan said it. Today, because the consumer is in control, they approach media with different purposes in mind. As such, the marketer needs to understand WHY a consumer would pay attention to your message in a given medium. Display advertising is totally different from video commercials from paid search, from owned media websites, from in-store marketing, etc.

James Tenser
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
McLuhan’s famous aphorism is exactly as true and relevant today as it was on the day he first wrote it. It applies equally well to our analytical understanding of cuneiform, movable type, the telegraph, smoke signals, radio, and messenger RNA. Each communications technology displaced (but did not completely replace) those that preceded it. Each new communications technology caused structural change to the prevailing culture that was to a great degree independent of the content of the messages themselves. Old media, (like calligraphy or daguerreotype photography) may sometimes recede from prevailing technology status into art forms, but they don’t quite fade… Read more »
Ted Hurlbut
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Ted Hurlbut
6 years 4 months ago
At the risk of sounding very contrary, the message is the message. Always has been, always will be. What changes is how we package the message, and deliver the message. Digital is a delivery system. The rise of the digital era may change the cultural packaging the message needs to be delivered in, but the message is still the message. This all is eerily familiar. Not to pick on IBM, but they, like many others, have for a long time marketed “solutions.” Their “solutions” aren’t solutions, they are tools, as are everybody else’s “solutions.” The real solutions are what skilled… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Hmmm, well, let’s see…just a minute…I was reading one of the several ads on this RetailWire site, sorry, I was distracted.

The “medium” is the vehicle for the message. Times may have changed, however, opportunities only increase with the more cost-effective exposure of digital media.

Michael Greenberg
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Michael Greenberg
6 years 4 months ago

This statement made sense in 1964, when it took a ton of cash to get your message into any medium whatsoever.

Today, Ted H. is right–the message is the message. Consumers are far better at filtering all messages, so make sure anything you want to say is relevant, timely, and interesting before firing it off.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
The biggest challenge of digital media is clutter resulting in consumer data overload. Cable and satellite TV segmented the consumer, thus ending the mass market. Social digital media has segmented the market down to a consumer of one. Further, the consumer time slice has been reduced, which makes it difficult to tell a story. Because digital media is cheap, everyone is saying buy me with no rationale or support. Consumers record TV shows and then fast forward through commercials. They block sellers’ e-mails and only skim read tweets, etc. Dropping the campaign of who you are and why they need… Read more »
Dan Frechtling
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
Thank you for your comments. Ian offered a great dissection of the irony of digital. Joan and Frank point out digital can make us invest less in messaging when messages cost minimally to place. Jamie adds historical perspective and another “M” to Marshall McLuhan’s Medium is Mechanism is Message. Ted and Michael provide contrarian opinions that medium is merely packaging and delivery. Barry and Doug and others note that higher clutter makes the whole messaging game that much harder. I enjoyed learning from the BrainTrust and others as I do everyday. I appreciate your lending your “best-trained individual minds” (and… Read more »
Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

The medium chosen is an integral part of the marketing strategy and the platform for the message. Considering the proliferation of media and certain biases, the medium is less likely to be the message.

For example, thirty years ago an advert in the WSJ elevated the brand to a higher level. Today it only means the brand had the means to run an advert in the WSJ.

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Interesting question. This Fall one of two classes I am teaching is “Globalization in New Media Design and Technology.” Digital media’s challenge is that by its very nature, digital, allows others than the original creator to change, update, or dramatically alter content, while projecting an image as if it was the original. Where is the authenticated truth, whether it is a news story, testimonial, or ad? Wikimedia is a prime example. People are encouraged to submit there version of the description.

Matthew Keylock
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Matthew Keylock
6 years 4 months ago

Personalization is the key. Not just using somebody’s name and knowing their geo-dems but truly being relevant. We are still too into the numbers. A 10% response rate means you missed with 90%. That’s terrible isn’t it? …especially if you are communicating with loyal customers.

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