The role of advertising in a digital world - are we about to see the comeback of the iconic, emotional Aussie ad?

Australia has long had a love of advertising. Its “Mad Men” such as Mo and Jo and Singo (Alan Morris, Allan Johnston and John Singleton). Its campaigns that made their mark on Australian popular culture such as Qantas’ I Still Call Australia Home, Yellow Pages’ Not Happy Jan, and AAMI’s Rhonda and Ketut. And its ability to cleverly adapt to the changes in the industry through depressions, world wars, GFCs and more recently the digital age.

The Australian advertising industry has helped elect and depose prime ministers. It’s spawned popular TV programs such as World’s Funniest TV Commercials and The Gruen Transfer. And it has helped thousands of brands lift their sales and market shares. And according to a soon-to-be released report by Deloitte Access Economics, it’s also an industry providing a $40 billion lift to the Australian economy, employing more than 56,000 people, and funding major pastimes such as our cricket, AFL and NRL seasons.

It’s easy to forget the power of advertising when digital dominates marketing thinking. Advertising’s origins go back 4000 to 5000 years, when posters and flyers were made on papyrus, and town criers waxed lyrical about their wares, not unlike Gerry Harvey on radio today. You can look back 2000 years at the ruins of Pompeii and see signs etched into the brickwork advertising everything from political candidates to the best fish stew, with carefully crafted messages of influence.

The challenge now, though, is the role of advertising in the digital world. At its best advertising works at the emotional and rational level. As research company Millward Brown pointed out a few years back, every ad generates an emotional response, because everything we encounter in life generates an instinctive emotional response. But some do dial up the emotional appeal more to persuade consumers, while others are more factual and rational.

Until recently many of the digital mediums that were available to advertisers favoured the more rational and factual advertising. But the growth of mobile devices, and the affordability of video content, has seen a return to emotionally appealing creativity in advertising.

And Australia has a brilliant history of emotional advertising. From Happy little Vegemites in the 1950s, to Louie the fly in the 60s, C’mon Aussie C’mon in the 70s, I still call Australia home in the 80s, the Trim Lamb butcher in the 90s, Carlton Draught’s Big Ad in the 2000s and Rhonda and Ketut in the 2010s. The jingles, one liners, characters and images from these ads are part of our vernacular.

The ads carried ideas that were fought for by admen who built their own agencies and became household names — Singleton, Mojo, Whybin Lawrence, Droga and Clemenger. Those ideas that tugged at the heart strings were created by brilliant people who intimately understood the Australian psyche at that moment in time. Some of those people were so talented they went on to became household names in other areas of creativity. Phillip Adams, Peter Carey and Bryce Courtenay went from writing famous campaigns, to famous books. And Ken Done went from designing ads to designing works of art.

But the digital age relegated the perceived importance of such emotional advertising. Into the marketing lexicon came the term “traditional advertising”, which meant old fashioned. Emotional advertising quickly become an unpopular tool in the marketer’s armoury. Even more so when the GFC hit, and marketing budgets swung from long-term brand building to short-term customer engagement; from emotional engagement to a more rational engagement. From expensive TV ads to more affordable digital ads.

The good news for those who see advertising as art as much as craft is that this seems like a short-term glitch: what hasn’t changed in a digital word is that 95 per cent of purchase decisions are made emotionally. And with the rapid take up of smartphones and their ability to deliver HD video, emotional creativity is coming back as an important advertising genre. And it has seen marketers rapidly moving 41 per cent of their advertising spend to digital mediums.

The truly great and successful campaigns created in the television era were not only loved by the marketers of those brands, but by Australians as a whole. Today’s marketers and digital experts now need to insert that emotional hook into their video content and digital video advertising. All up Australian companies spend $12.6bn a year on all forms of advertising. It’s a proven tool in marketing through the good times and the tough times. McKinsey argues that advertising fuels 15 per cent of GDP growth in G20 countries.

The Australian advertising industry, like its sporting teams, is up there globally, belying its relatively small population. The industry’s economic value equates to 1 per cent of GDP. It’s created big personalities, big campaigns, big brands, big sales, big employment and big change. And as we rapidly move into the digital age, with emotional advertising back on the rise, it’s starting to prove its worth once more, just as it has done for 5000 years.