The distraction economy doesn't work on the Unreachables

Photo: Thinkstock/Jrcasas
Photo: Thinkstock/Jrcasas

How do advertisers reach consumers who don't want to be reached? It's not by jingling a shiny object in front of them, says the US general manager of Acast.

Today’s ad-averse consumer was born in the distraction economy—a parade of lights, banners, pop-ups and endless interruptions, all competing for attention. These choosy, on-demand media connoisseurs are consumers who know when they are being sold to. They will go to great lengths to avoid advertising: ad-blocking, leaving the room or even paying a premium for its absence. They are the Unreachables.

So how do advertisers reach these elusive people? How do they reach consumers who don’t want to be reached, that are off the grid, so to speak? Well, it’s not by jingling a shiny object in front of them to distract them from whatever they’re doing! To reach the the Unreachables, we must understand them. To understand the Unreachables, we must understand how they came to be. 

Cue the fragmentation of media, ushered in by the dot com era and accelerated by the smartphone and tablet era. The digital revolution democratized many things and made information readily accessible, but it came at a price: There was no escaping advertising.

It was the ever-present banner and jarring pop-up on a website. It was the unavoidable pre-roll and pestering overlay on a YouTube video. It was the advertising executive’s carpet bombing of Males 18 to 34. It was the stealthy sponsored post in the Facebook newsfeed (and now Instagram and Twitter too). Cities covered in digital advertising. Checkout counters with facial recognition technology. Interactive point of sale. Advanced tracking, consumer profiling and behavioral targeting. Data, data, data. Basically, an episode of "Black Mirror."

This distraction economy bred cynicism for advertising, a sentiment that gave birth to the Unreachables. Advertising executives not only acknowledged but even fed into this frustration. They had to abandon their fancy 60-second TV spots for 6-second vines. Geico’s clever "Unskippable" campaign paid lip service to the frustration felt by both advertising executives, for no longer having the same captive audience, and consumers, for having their content constantly interrupted.

The Unreachables don’t want to be tricked, pressured or shouted at. The Unreachables engage with brands in environments where they feel comfortable in ways they prefer with devices they like. They’re cord-cutters, binge-watching Netflix, and they’re premium subscribers of Hulu and Spotify. The Unreachables want to set the terms of an engagement, but once they’re in, they’re really in. 

Many Unreachables are millennials, which, according to several studies, represent the most brand-loyal generation. If the Unreachables are loyal and want to set the terms of an engagement, then the right way to reach them is not by persuading them but by making them feel comfortable enough to make their own choices.

One way to accomplish that is to create content that attracts the Unreachables. Branded entertainment came into favor when brands aimed to create content so compelling that it drew consumers to them, instead of attempting to sneak into a consumer’s field of vision. A great example of such content is Wes Anderson’s short film for apparel retailer H&M, "Come Together," starring Adrien Brody, shot in the quirky style that Wes Anderson devotees have come to expect. In addition to compelling short films, brands created mobile games, VR experiences and a host of other content pieces that engaged and entertained, often with no immediate sales mechanism attached. But it was accepted. A nod of approval from the Unreachables. 

Another way to reach the Unreachables is to find them in places they are already comfortable and engaged. As such, audio represents a tremendous opportunity. Fifty percent of millennials listen to podcasts regularly—a number that, given podcasting’s breakneck growth rate in the last few years, is sure to rise. Podcasting—or spoken audio on-demand if we want to get fancy—is one of the most intimate forms of media today, and arguably the most trusted. In a world of endless bite-sized servings of content and advertising, it’s a welcome respite. Close your eyes. Listen. 

This is the headphone era—soon to be the home device and smart car era—and a big part of this era is just audio and certainly the podcast, a medium in which the audience hangs on every word. It’s no wonder that such an environment is attractive to advertisers, but to be impactful it must be done right. Even though podcasting hearkens back to talk radio, it’s different—a pure, distilled version of talk radio—and its culture, having developed alongside the the Unreachables, is different. 

The loud, in-your-face radio spots of yesterday, screaming about the latest fire sale, don’t work as well here. This is a medium in which mindful advertising thrives. Advertising must fit tonally and thematically with the podcast to be optimally effective. The audience is listening. This is the pinnacle of advertising: Advertisers can find a contextual fit for their message and be celebrated for it.

The Unreachables don’t hate advertising in principle, but they do hate disruption. They hate feeling put upon. They hate feeling like they don’t have control. In some ways, the Unreachables, though demanding and skeptical as consumers, are more open to advertising than their predecessors, provided that they feel they’ve had a say in the matter. And if advertising fits the storytelling they crave, seek out and consume, it will finally achieve harmony between advertisers and the Unreachables.

Oskar Serrander is general manager, US of Acast.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free