I’ve just finished reading Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which I highly recommend everyone read, and Piketty stops me cold on page 357 with this graph (see below). I’ve highlighted in yellow two things for you to take note of. In a moment I’ll explain why this hit me so hard.
This same week, I was reading Seth Godin’s blog post “Mass production and mass media” where he explains that mass media exists because it permits mass marketers to do their job and how mass media is going away. If you’re in radio or TV, that kind of proclamation will get your attention; BIGTIME.
Godin is predicting that the “mass” part is what’s going away and that it is being replaced by “micro.” In essence that it’s better to be important to a few than be irrelevant to the many.
Then this article appears in AllAccess “Radio’s Dying…But The Cause Isn’t What You Think.” Seth Resler writes that radio isn’t going to die because it has been abandoned by listeners, but it’s going to die because it’s been abandoned by advertisers. Resler goes on to make the case that advertising is moving away from the Mad Men era art form that it was, towards a keyword and search scientific algorithm metric of today.
“…there has been little doubt for more than a decade that the advertising model that traditionally supported an industrial-age news and information system is evaporating,” writes Anderson, Bell and Shirky on pages 11-15 in “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present (2012)”
Mark Perry, blogging at the American Enterprise Institute writes: “The dramatic decline in newspaper ad revenues since 2000 has to be one of the most significant and profound Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction in the last decade, maybe in a generation.”
Well, I’m here to have you consider a 3rd possibility, one that stopped me in my tracks as I was reading Piketty’s book. Now, I may be putting words in Professor Piketty’s mouth when I tell you what I’m about to say. Piketty did not write about radio or TV, or mass media in general in his book. He writes about wealth inequality in our world from antiquity to the present day and then makes some predictions about where things are headed based on current trend lines.
But this graph on page 357 haunts me.
That graph, from the period of 1913 to 2012 includes the period in which radio and television were born. It’s the era when advertising supported media took off. I worked the last forty years of that graph in the radio business and experienced the change in business that this graph shows.
Commercial radio was born in 1920. Commercial TV took-off in the 1950s. And I quite agree with Seth Godin when he writes “Mass production, the ability to make things cheaply, in volume, demanded that we invent mass marketing – it was the only way to sell what was being made in the quantity it was produced. Mass media exists because it permits mass marketers to do their job.” To which I would add to Seth’s thoughts that mass media and mass marketing both existed because there was a strong American middle class of consumers.
If Piketty is correct, the concept of a middle class consumer economy that existed between 1913 and 2012, was an anomaly. It didn’t really exist anywhere in the world before 1913 and it’s very likely not going to exist anywhere in the world as we journey away from the year 2012. The middle class consumer economy will evaporate and along with it, advertiser support for mass media.
1913-2012 was a unique period in world economic history. It gave birth to consumers who had money to spend, mass production that could produce lots of goods and mass media that could advertise those goods. All three were simultaneously occurring at the very same moment.
The new buzz words are “shared economy” and “collaborative economy.” What roles will large corporations, universities and mass media play when people are getting what they need from one another?
In 2014, Nielsen Music reported a staggering drop in music sales where as much as a fifth of music buyers didn’t buy anything. 2014 also saw box office ticket sales plunge to their lowest level in three years. The home ownership rate reached its lowest point in 25 years at the end of 2014. More people were now living in shared living arrangements or going back home to live with mom and dad. And NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio appearing on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” told viewers that:
“The wealth gap in New York City today is worse than during the Great Depression or The Roaring 20s – and the gap is growing bigger. Today over half the people in NYC pay over a third of their income for housing. The reality is, (according to the mayor) if we don’t change course middle class families won’t exist in New York City.”
Are these reports canaries in the consumer coal shaft?
Medialife Magazine, a magazine devoted to media buyers and planners, reported that 2014 wasn’t good for advertising. Total spending was up 3.0 percent, but if you take out political spending and the Winter Olympics, the number shrinks to 1.6 percent. “That’s the worst yearly growth pace since the recession began in 2008,” said writer Bill Cromwell. Traditional media is struggling and according to Magna Global, “this appears to be a lasting trend.”
Only recently have broadcast operators said things like “flat is the new up” when comparing year-over-year revenues. I realize there are exceptions to what I’m saying. Your broadcast property might be one of them. But what are the trends that are taking place and how will they impact you in the years to come?
It took two world wars to re-set the wealth inequality gap and put into place FDR’s New Deal. Changes that have in more recent times been stripped away returning things to the way they were in the 19th Century; a period of time when the concept of a middle class of consumers didn’t exist.
Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads wrote recently (Monday Morning Memo, March 2, 2015) about “the shrinking of mass media” and “the growing reality of gender equality.” America went from being 16% single to 46% single in just one generation, Williams writes. “A once-proud nation of families is evolving into a proud nation of individuals.” And Williams sees “The trend toward singleness is sociological (while) the erosion of mass media is technological (as) each trend accelerates the other.”
Williams comes to this conclusion:
“We’re approaching the end of a golden time when courageous advertisers can invest money in mass media and see their businesses grow as a result. My suspicion is that we’ve got perhaps 5 to 7 more years before retail businesses and service businesses will be forced to begin playing by a whole new set of rules. Buy mass media while the masses can still be reached.”
The future of ad supported media is tied to consumerism. Consumerism is tied to having a strong middle class.
Does the Piketty graph on page 357 of his book “Capital” send a chill down your spine like it does to mine?
P.S. Thomas Piketty published an amplification on his r>g theory. You can read that here.