Cable television, remotecontrol devices, and computers have made it increasingly difficult for advertisers to capture people's attention -- not to mention encourage them to buy a particular product or service.
''Entertain me'' has become the command of the masses. Unless an ad promises an emotional or adventurous pull, it risks obliteration: a press of the thumb, a flip of the page. ''Been there, done that'' is the universal consumer cry.
What's left for advertisers to do?
Sut Jhally thinks he knows. As author of several books on advertising and a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mr. Jhally sees a new stage of advertising emerging. ''The ad is an experience in and of itself, not directed at rational processes,'' Jhally explains during a phone interview.
The advertising strategy of selling a lifestyle doesn't get much response in the late 20th century, Jhally says, especially from young audiences.
''How do you make an impact?
''Cut through the clutter and hit at emotion,'' he says, defining clutter as all the media out there competing for consumer attention.
Regina Kelley, director of strategic planning for Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency in New York, agrees that cutting through the clutter is a paramount challenge for advertisers. ''There is so much proliferation,'' she says, mentioning not only cable, but computer on-line services, including the Worldwide Web and Internet. ''Good advertising has always been good advertising. But it's harder to get the mind share, the share of attention.''
Today's young audience is hip to electronic and print communication in all its forms. ''They have been brought up on media. Their whole world is media,'' Jhally says. ''They have this incredible cynicism.... It's very tough to give a rational argument to buy.''
Still, says Kelley, the command ''know your target'' has not changed in the ad world. Especially with 20-somethings you have to find a way into their headset, she says. She finds the word ''cynical'' a bit strong, opting rather to call young people ''media savvy.''
''There's almost a wink and a nod on their part saying 'We know what you advertisers are up to.''' She mentions the humorous Nike commercial directed by Spike Lee that spoofs advertising itself: As basketball players perform amazing feats, the characters say, ''It's the shoes, man.''
Although Jhally cautions that giving too much credence to one campaign would be a mistake, he refers to Benetton's print campaign as ''brilliant.''
The Benetton ads addressed issues such as racism, ethnic violence, social taboos, and human suffering -- all without a sweater in sight. Images included a priest and a nun kissing, and the blood-stained clothes of a dead soldier. Reactions -- especially to the latter -- ranged from boycotts and protest letters to awards and recognition (see story, left).
''You'll find that most advertisers don't try to shock people,'' says Karen King, associate professor of advertising at the University of Georgia in Athens. While the campaign generated controversy and seemed to identify with a young, hip audience, Dr. King points out, ''getting attention is not necessarily selling product.''
Peter Fressola, director of communications for Benetton in North America, admits the campaign has had both positive and negative results.
''As you'd expect, I think the campaign has done quite a lot to change people's view of advertising,'' he says.
While Mr. Fressola says that no one has copied it, the campaign has shown other companies the power of brand recognition. And Benetton broke rules that are rarely broken in advertising: Don't get political, and don't risk offending anyone.
''People's expectations and tolerance levels are changing,'' Fressola says. ''They're starved for something new and different to shake us from complacency.... Benetton represents the fringe of a new kind of advertising.''
Benetton has certainly succeeded in getting its name into the news, Jhally says, adding that the company generated a lot of free ink by going the controversial route. But the important issue here is ''less a matter of people being brilliant and more a matter of Benetton recognizing where the market is now.
''What Benetton has done -- perhaps in the most spectacular way -- is react to the new conditions of the marketplace,'' Jhally says. Those new conditions include a fragmented audience, an incredible amount of advertising already, and an increasingly disaffected audience.
''It no longer has anything to do with sweaters, it has to do with cutting through the clutter,'' he reiterates.
Jhally and his colleagues are still trying to define this development in advertising; one has toyed with the label Saturnalia -- refering to unrestrained revelry.
''Everyone will be playing with this,'' Jhally predicts. Already, we're seeing less product in ads and more emotion and experience associated with brands, he says. SEGA and some of the new 7UP ads on television have ''experience'' elements such as bungee jumping, for example.
''SEGA really understood their target -- teenage boys,'' Kelley points out. Other advertisers have not been so successful; they've tried to mirror the young audience's coolness and failed.
''Good advertising captures something that's already there -- in the heart or in the head.... You want to understand your consumer not just as an individual in his or her own little world, but the consumer at large within culture,'' Kelley says.
Some other telltale signs to look for in the future, according to Jhally: identities being mixed up (a grandmother who speaks ''Valley Girl'' lingo for example); and the use of anxiety, fear, and sex to elicit emotion and churn people up.
What he finds disturbing is not necessarily the content, but the fact that advertising is an inescapable fact of modern life.
''Advertising is everywhere,'' Jhally says, ''and that is offensive to me.''