The Better Advertising Mousetrap

Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have coined the phrase: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” When it comes to advertising, social media has built the better mousetrap, and you and I are helping them to improve it every day.

The Social Dilemma

There’s a new documentary on Netflix called “The Social Dilemma” about how social media is impacting our lives, and is truly eye-opening. I encourage you to watch this documentary if you subscribe to Netflix, but especially if you’re in advertising and marketing. In fact, it would pay you to subscribe to Netflix just to view this documentary; it’s that important!

This blog won’t be about many of the important social issues raised in the documentary, but instead I plan to focus on how traditional media, like AM/FM radio broadcasting, is fighting a battle for advertising with the internet companies that isn’t a fair fight. Broadcasters are in essence coming to a gun fight, wielding a knife.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers of my blog, because back on February 25, 2018, I wrote an article titled “Radio Has an Addiction Problem,” that quoted MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s 1995 book “Life on the Screen, Identity in the Age of the Internet” saying “computers don’t just do things for us, they do things to us, including ways we think about ourselves and other people.” Turkle said that computers weren’t just a tool, but were sneaking into our minds and changing our relationship with the world around us.

Monetizing Social Media

Social media quickly realized that in order to sustain itself it needed to monetize its service. Google’s search engine business was a Silicon Valley marvel for not only harnessing the power of the internet but simultaneously building a revenue engine that grew right along with it. Tim Kendall, now CEO of Moment, was one of the early people at Facebook, charged with coming up with a way to make money. He said that he decided that the “advertising model was the most elegant way.”


The advertising business has always been about selling exposure to the people who use the product. Newspapers sold access to its readers, radio sold access to its listeners and television sold access to its viewers.

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted;

the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

-John Wanamaker

Businesses have always wanted to get the biggest bang for their advertising buck, but realized that in the world of advertising, there were no guarantees, that is until social media came along. Mel Karmazin, former broadcasting and satellite radio CEO put it this way when he met with the founders of Google: “You’re messing with the magic of sales.”

Jaron Lanier, who wrote the book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” explains that what social media is doing more effectively than traditional media is “changing what you do, how you think and who you are…it’s a gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your behavior and perception.” It’s similar to a magician performing slight-of-hand tricks, and making you believe things that aren’t real.

“This is what every business has always dreamt of, to have a guarantee that if it places an ad it will be successful. That’s (social media’s) business, they sell certainty. In order to be successful in that business you have to have great predictions. Great predictions begin with one imperative, you need a lot of data.

The internet has given us a new kind of marketplace that never existed before, a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures. Just like there are markets for pork belly futures, or oil futures, we now have markets that trade in human futures, at scale, and those markets have produced the trillions of dollars that have made the internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity.”

-Shoshana Zuboff, PhD, Harvard Business School

Author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology

is indistinguishable from magic.”

-Arthur C. Clarke

Getting Your Attention

Every company whose business model is to sustain itself through the selling of advertising is competing with other companies for your attention. Traditional media is competing with every social media company to get as much of your time and attention to their platform as they possibly can. Remember, when you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

The advantage social media has over traditional media is their development of persuasive technology. It’s designed to intentionally apply to the extreme behavior modification in the user, and cause them to take a desired action. It does this through the use of positive intermittent reinforcement, just like a casino slot machine lures you into thinking the next pull of the handle will release its fortune. Social media works to create an unconscious habit, programming you for a deeper level of control than you even realize is happening.

Social media has learned how to exploit a vulnerability in human psychology, which even when you know how it works doesn’t inoculate you from its power to change you.

No longer is social media a tool we use, but is a tool that uses us, creating this technology based environment designed for mental addiction through psychological manipulation.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’:

illegal drugs and software.”

-Edward Tufte

Most concerning about this change is that it’s being driven by a technology that’s advancing exponentially. In contrast, our human brain has not really advanced at all over the same period of time. The rate of change is beyond our human comprehension, even for the very people who are designing and building these computer networks.

“The race to keep people’s attention by social media isn’t going away. Our technology is going to become more integrated into our lives, not less. The AI’s (artificial intelligence) are going to get better at predicting what keeps us on the screen.

How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix?”

-Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology Co-Founder

“Whether it is to be utopia or oblivion

will be a touch-and-go relay race

right up to the final moment…”

-Buckminster Fuller

Today, the internet is a more efficient way to sell our attention to advertisers.

Now you know why.


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16 responses to “The Better Advertising Mousetrap

  1. A lot to think about in today’s blog Dick! One knows we are being used by social media, but can you avoid it? “They” certainly are watching and listening to us, and mining data almost constantly, and you’re correct, WE are the product! Kind of Orwellian if you think about it! I think back to many of the great radio time salespeople I worked with over the years, and glad for them that so many are now retired like me….I feel for the ones still in the industry! It just gets harder every day!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Frank, I join you in being happy that I retired. The game has changed in ways we didn’t even sense was coming. In my case, FB has over 10-years of data on me, Google & Amazon even more. When you know that much about every individual you deal with and have the computing power to leverage that knowledge through the use of artificial intelligence, it’s game over for the old ways of selling advertising.

      Any ad-supported media needs to be playing the game at this level or they will be left in the dust.

      It’s another case of the big getting bigger and the small going extinct.


  2. I was planning on watching that documentary because I listen to Tristan’s podcast. So I just watched it. My conclusion is that radio is a passive medium that can no longer compete with digital media. In the old days of radio, we concentrated on keeping a listener for 15 min for Arbitron ratings. With an attention span of 12 seconds or shorter digital media now holds the masses captive. We are in a dystopia with no viable solutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As long as private companies can collect our data, and we allow it because we don’t wish to give up what we get from them, any other form of media that uses advertising to sustain itself, but doesn’t have their ability to collect and leverage the data is FUBAR.


  3. That’s why the dream of de-consolidated radio and returning to a 1960s or 70s radio world will never happen, (not to mention there doesn’t seem to be a new generation of mom and pop owners buying available stations). A stand alone AM/FM would have a very difficult time competing with 25 other radio stations Google, Facebook, Spotify, etc, etc for advertising dollars. Aside from that, they’d have to take a bunch of functions back in house. Much as we don’t like iHeart, they’re making moves to be an internet company that happens to owns transmitters and towers. The idea being a sale so the creditors who took a haircut in the bankruptcy can get some of their money back.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a huge fan of Marshall McLuhan, who famously wrote “the medium is the message.” Just as you say, it’s not the content, it’s the medium itself that changes our perceptions, and each new medium is an extension of man. It’s possible that the message and effect of the Internet and social media is that we’re a “hive.” Just as in a beehive, there are queen bees (Google, Facebook), drones who must be connected to the hive at all times (us) and the “honey” is our data, refined and sold to the highest bidder.
    The Internet is actually a very isolating medium, and in the current lockdown, its effect is multiplied. The Internet extends our central nervous system into an instantaneous, mythical global reach. McLuhan observed that each new medium (cars, radio, TV) has an incredible impact, and it takes years for us to recover from the initial hypnotic effect and put it in perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gary, some interesting thoughts. I wonder what John Parikahl might have to say about Marshall McLuhan’s perspective. John, studied under McLuhan and was CEO of Joint Communications and a featured speaker at the Radio Only Conferences for several years. I have mentored under John for years.


      • Just saw your response! I worked with Parikahl briefly at KISW in Seattle. Brilliant guy. I’d love to hear what he has to say about all this. One more perspective: Mike McVay told me he believes there aren’t enough crazy people in programming right now. Companies are more concerned with getting the paperwork right than with giving the audience exciting, engaging programming. He’s got a point.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mike has an excellent point. Crazy people are exciting, passionate people and radio used to be filled with them. While difficult to manage — I was a GM — I truly loved and respected the value they brought to a radio station.

        I’ve asked John to weigh in here with his thoughts. I hope he does. John Parikahl is one of my mentors.


  5. From Inside Radio (9-21-2020): The state of local radio stations is precarious as many started the year on tenuous financial footing and have faced increasing challenges as the year progressed, according to a recent survey from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

    The biggest long-term threat facing radio companies is declining revenue, said 39.7% of the nearly 350 radio managers who took part in the RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey in conjunction with the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University.

    Other threats reported by both commercial and public radio station managers were cuts in funding, decreasing radio advertising or general declining community economies.

    In 2019, decreasing budgets hurt local radio stations, especially non-commercial stations. Most of the radio news directors able to report on their website’s profitability reported losses.

    Fewer stations ran local news in 2019, the survey said, and a near-record-high percentage of stations report running local news from other sources, rather than originating it. Although the number of minutes of local news aired increased slightly, fewer radio stations increased their news programming.

    Of the radio stations surveyed, 68.2% report running local news. The number of AM stations reporting local news fell slightly to 70.8%, and the number of FM stations increased slightly to 69.6%.

    While fewer news directors plan to increase the amount of news, public radio news directors actually said they expect to increase news.

    Radio managers report that the key threats to the industry are a fragmented audience (25.2%), staffing (11.9%), corporate cuts/consolidation (7.2%), declining news appetite/trust (4.9%) and technology and media landscape changes (4.6% and 2.9%, respectively).

    While more than half of local TV station managers say local newspapers are competitors, 71.5% of radio news managers say local newspapers are not competition, including two-thirds of commercial radio managers and 80% of public radio managers.

    The local radio managers, who said they compete with local newspapers, have bigger radio news teams. About 39.8% of the stations said the outlets compete for content, 17.5% said they compete digitally, and 15.5% said they compete for advertising.

    TV stations aired more hours of local news in 2019 than ever recorded in the annual survey. Weekend news reports grew an average of 20 minutes a day, bringing the average hours of weekly news aired to a record high. Average weekday news remained at last year’s record-high levels. The increase came primarily from smaller markets and smaller newsrooms. About 50% of the TV news directors predicted the amount of news produced would increase.

    Local TV news profitability was mixed, with 75% of the top 25 market stations reporting profitability, but fewer mid-market stations. Website profitability increased slightly in 2019, except in the largest markets. More than 60% of local TV news directors report profitability numbers.

    The survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of 2019 among all 1,702 operating, non-satellite television stations and a random sample of 3,427 radio stations. Valid responses came from 1,313 television stations (77.1%) and 673 radio news directors and general managers representing 1,996 radio stations.


  6. Click to access RR-2008-05-09.pdf

    Radio & Records published this article, which I wrote for the May 9, 2008 issue: “Sell Action, Not Eyeballs”
    “Keeping pace with advertiser expectations requires more sophisticated online metrics.”

    Radio never had its eye on the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The Biggest Threat to Local Radio | DickTaylorBlog

  8. Pingback: Why Make Radio Advertising Harder to Buy? | DickTaylorBlog

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