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Industry veteran Sir John Hegarty says that social media platforms have impacted advertisers’ creativity. According to a recent article on the BBC, advertising no longer captures the national imagination, nor is it as effective at making “brands famous”, like it used to.

He’s not entirely wrong. He’s not entirely right, either.

Yes, adverts in the 70s and 80s, even 90s, helped build empires that live on until this day, and Hegarty was an influential part of many a memorable campaign. But back then, there weren’t as many brands. There weren’t as many channels, either. There was also barely any fragmentation of media consumption, which nowadays makes it harder for advertisers to reach and engage with large audiences in the same way they could in the past. Neither was ad saturation as prevalent. There are now more ads than ever before, with consumers being bombarded by advertising messages on a constant basis, following them around wherever they go, no matter what device they use. In fact, over-saturation is probably a word best-suited to describe the advertising landscape.

Then there’s also the problem of urgency. Tight deadlines and tight budgets that simply don’t allow a marketer or marketing team to tap into their creativity. Because time is money, and if you don’t launch a campaign now, someone else will, and they will take your rightful place in front of the consumer’s mind.

Which leads us to another factor that’s likely killing creativity: the data-driven approach. While the use of data and analytics has led to more targeted advertising and better measurement of campaign effectiveness, it may have also led to a more formulaic approach to advertising that prioritises metrics over creativity.

Oh! And let’s not forget ad blocking. With the proliferation of ad-blocking technology, consumers are now more able to avoid ads altogether, making it harder for advertisers to reach them with their message.

What’s impacting creativity is a long list of culprits, too long to explore each one in depth. But consumer attention may be the most culpable of all.

Is people’s low attention span suffocating advertisers’ creativity?

Attention is a scarce commodity, whether it concerns advertising, reading a book, paying attention in class, or simply the habit of sitting in front of a TV after a long day’s work. Honest question here: how long does it take before your mobile comes out and your attention drifts to scrolling endlessly on Instagram or Twitter? I admit, I catch myself doing it more and more often these days.

Decreasing attention spans like mine can pose a challenge for advertising creativity, as marketers need to capture their target audience’s attention in a shorter amount of time. And the mass of content out there isn’t what it used to be five years ago. Or ten. Or twenty. Today, at the tap of a button, you have access to a seemingly infinite ecosystem of content, often over-saturated by too much information and, I hate to say it, misinformation. For a marketer hoping to create an advert that, not only stands out, but sticks in the user’s memory, think of it as trying to shoot an arrow at a painted target dead centre, but the target is on a speeding train going one direction and you have mere milliseconds to make the shot.

However, that’s not to say it can’t be done. Challenges have always brought out the best of humanity. A decreasing attention span presents an opportunity for creative and innovative advertising that can grab people’s attention in a quick and memorable way. Effective advertising in today’s fast-paced environment is usually carried out by creative and attention-grabbing visuals, concise messaging, and an understanding of the target audience’s interests and preferences. Marketers must be able to convey the value proposition of their product or service quickly and communicate it in a way that resonates with their audience.

In some cases, the limited attention span of people has led to the development of new advertising formats, such as short-form videos or social media ads, designed to be consumed quickly and easily. However, it’s worth noting that creativity can still thrive in longer formats, such as in-depth videos, podcasts, or immersive experiences, that can hold people’s attention through compelling storytelling or engaging content.

Just to name a few:

Nike – Colin Kaepernick “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” (2018).

Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback known for his protests against racial injustice, caused a lot of controversy, but also became an instant cultural touchstone. The ad used powerful imagery and a powerful message to connect with a younger, more socially conscious audience.

Old Spice – “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010)

Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign was a viral sensation, featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa delivering a series of humorous and irreverent monologues while demonstrating the brand’s products. The campaign helped reinvigorate the Old Spice brand and set a new standard for how brands could use humour and creativity to connect with consumers.

Coca-Cola – “Share a Coke” (2014)

Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign featured personalised bottles with people’s names on them, encouraging consumers to share a Coke with their friends and loved ones. The campaign was a huge success, generating millions of social media posts and increasing sales for the brand.

Apple – “Shot on iPhone” (2015)

Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign featured photos and videos taken by real people using their iPhones, highlighting the quality of the camera and the creativity of Apple users. The campaign helped reinforce Apple’s position as a leader in mobile technology and inspired a new generation of iPhone photographers.

Dove – “Real Beauty Sketches” (2013)

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign aimed to challenge beauty stereotypes by showing women how others saw them compared to how they saw themselves. The campaign was emotional and thought-provoking, generating millions of views and sparking conversations about beauty standards and self-image.

Social media has certainly influenced the advertising landscape, but creativity is still very much abundant. It just appears as though it’s on the decline because there’s so much more content for the human brain to process.

While social media has provided new channels for advertising, traditional media such as TV and print are still widely used by advertisers to reach large audiences. There’s also a distinct correlation between traditional and digital advertising. Spend a bit more on TV, and you’ll see an uplift in digital traffic. It’s effective, it’s just not trackable. With today’s analytical minds, it’s no wonder why brands are more invested in knowing where their budgets are going as opposed to spending in blind faith.

All social media has done really is lead to new forms of advertising that rely less on traditional advertising formats and more on content marketing, influencer marketing, and user-generated content. Brands are increasingly turning to social media platforms, such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, to create engaging content and leverage the influence of social media influencers to reach their target audience. Some of their content has even become viral, proof that the creative flame still burns, and burns brightly.