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The Shifting Power of Words

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Legendary adman Hal Riney died last Monday. He achieved fame with advertising campaigns for Saturn, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, and perhaps the most frequently cited political spot in history – the "It's morning again in America" TV commercial that helped to boost Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential re-election bid.

An adman renowned for creating TV spots might seem like a curious subject for a column on search, but the campaigns for which Riney was famous can serve as a testament to the power that words play in advertising. At the same time, they also point to the ways in which the locus of that power has shifted.

In the heyday of broadcast and print media, consumers were fed (and grew fat on) the words and slogans put forth by marketers and their ad agencies. Many of these, like "It's morning again in America," were both memorable and influential. Reagan, for example, got a lot of mileage out of the oft-repeated, feel-good mantra that embodied his spirit of optimism.

And in the case of someone like Riney, who enjoyed the privilege of reading his own words in more than one voiceover, the adman was a very visible and audible presence in the campaign. The role of listening, absorbing and remembering, meanwhile, fell to consumers.

Words retain their crucial importance in ad campaigns to this day, but to an ever-growing degree, the role of listening and remembering now falls on the shoulders of marketers, and the memorable words are not necessarily their own. Increasingly, they are the search terms used by their customers, which provide a window into those customers' wants and desires.

In order to capture their customers' attention, marketers need to "listen" to the words their customers are using. Their rising importance is reflective of a shift in the balance of power – away from the marketer and in favor of the consumer – a shift that has accompanied changes in media consumption away from television to the Internet and to search in particular.

With the ascendancy of search, the adman no longer occupies the foreground. Rather, success today hinges on working effectively behind the scenes to harness the intelligence of search – the insights into customers' thought processes and the vernacular they use to seek out brands and products, often in terms that may be considerably different than a brand's in-house marketing-speak.

Search data provide marketers and their agencies with an avenue for achieving the frequently expressed goal of getting closer to the customer. At Steak, we believe use of this intelligence should not be limited to search or even online marketing. It can and should be used to inform the messages that marketers issue through other channels, from TV to outdoor to radio to print.

And as there is little evidence to suggest that consumers adopt different modes of thinking or use a separate vocabulary as they switch from one channel to another during the course of a day, sticking to, or at the very least, synchronizing the messages that resonate with them is likely to prove fruitful.

This may sound like it's morning in America again, but it's also a new day dawning.

Noah Elkin is vice president of corporate strategy for international search-led digital agency Steak. He previously held a similar role at iCrossing, and has served as a senior analyst at eMarketer.


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