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I’d like to propose an explanation for the ‘Digi’mania’ which the advertising community had to suffer through starting in the mid 2000’s and ending only a few years ago. It’s such a brilliant theory that I think I’ll write a book about it… so stay tuned.

In “Can you point me to the Mac and Cheese aisle Please?”  we explored how “mental availability” is a key underpinning to mass marketing’s success; the basic tenet being that advertising creates a short cut to decision making. Being the bird brains that we are, we basically believe in things that we think the majority believes in. Messaging pounded into our cranium over years gives us the notion that one thing or another, if popular, is trusted, sensible, factually correct or held in high regard in the greater consciousness (whether there is any truth to that messaging or not). Mental availability is the economizing of decision making which helps us navigate say, the grocery store isle. We simply cannot weigh the cost/benefit of every product in every category… so we just go with what we think most people go with… with what’s familiar.

The same phenomenon which forever worked so well FOR us as marketers, worked AGAINST us during Digi’mania. Making baseless snap decisions and going along with the crowd is harmless when it comes to Mac and Cheese. But when it comes to putting an entire industry in a tail spin, the consequences are much more serious.

Lets say for example there are 4 colleges.. A, B, C + D. A+B are gaga over the newfound laser precision capabilities of Banner Ads. Mark Zuckerberg won’t shut up about it. It’s in the trades. It’s on PowerPoints. It’s everywhere. It eliminates waste by specifically showing ads to only those interested, is ‘interactive’ and orders of magnitudes less expensive than traditional advertising (which was ‘dead’ anyway).

Never mind that nobody looked at them, didn’t like the fact that they were being tracked in order to see them, clicked on them less than 1 in 10,000 times and that when they had any measurable success was the result of a broader campaign which made the product in said banner ad relevant in the first place.

So then ‘C’ comes walking along and hears A+B’s enthusiastic appraisal of interactive advertising and due to his lack of personal information on the matter, simply believes what he hears because he trusts that what A+B thinks is true, is. As they all enthusiastically hyperventilate about the possibilities of AdTech over Chipotle, poor ‘D’ comes strolling into the conference room. In Zeal factor, he is outnumbered 3 to 1! He has no interest in being charged with stupidity or callousness and more importantly, like the rest of us, craves social approval. So with no empirical data at his fingertips to refute the inaccuracies, he blurts out “Banner Ads Rock!”, almost unconsciously. This scenario multiplies exponentially into a plume of what cognitive psychologists refer to as an Availability Cascade; widespread mistaken beliefs grounded in the interaction between availability and social interactions which result in mass delusions.

So, this actually happened and we are still dusting ourselves off.

And just as we are getting back to what works, there’s a new problem – trying to incorporate the systems and segmentation associated with digital media into traditional media. That’ll be book #2…

Works citation on Availability Cascades