Every day, when I open my phone or computer, I am met with advertisements– on my facebook feed, on instagram or tumblr, at the top of my emails and on the sidebars of websites I visit. In fact, of all the ways I access the internet every day, I am hard pressed to think of a service I use on which I do not encounter advertisements, with the possible exception of my course Canvas pages.
And I am not alone in this. CBS News quotes Jay Walker-Smith, President of the Marketing Firm Yankelovich, as saying modern consumers see as many as 5,000 ads in a day. According to an article published by Forbes, the number could be anywhere from 4,000 to even 10,000. Faced with numbers like these, it is hardly a controversial assertion that advertising has changed drastically in recent years. Today’s brand landscape looks dramatically different than the one businesses and aspiring business owners faced 15 or 20 years ago. While I don’t have concrete data to support it, I would postulate that advertising– along with subscription services eliminating it– is the dominant business model in the technological entrepreneurship world; if not, I cannot help but think it will be in the not-so-distant future. Somewhat ironically, the ability to advertise everywhere has made consumer attention an even more competitive resource.
This exponential increase in advertising goes hand in hand with an equally drastic expansion in the market of goods and services available. With a few taps, I can purchase anything from clothing to ingredients for dinner, with an almost limitless selection of each. It is understood, from a variety of studies, that this expanse of choices does not actually improve consumer satisfaction (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html). When there are too many options to make a decision considering all the data, the fear that some other choice could be better can keep people from making a decision or from being content with the decision they’ve made.
My own experience corroborates this: recently, I needed to purchase a new backpack, since the one I used throughout high school was falling apart. Without the time to go physically to a store, I looked online– but the sheer number of choices was so overwhelming I wasn’t sure what to pick. I read probably about 20 lists of “expert reviews” ranking different backpacks for college students, young adults, or professionals; assembled, re-assembled, and revised a short list of choices; skimmed the reviews on amazon and the brand page of each backpack I was considering; and finally, after all this, bought the same backpack I would have bought at Costco. It took me four months to get to the point of clicking purchase.
I’ll admit I am exaggerating– but only slightly. Something about the quantity of choices makes it extremely difficult to make simple decisions. In this world of endless advertising and endless choices, branding and consumer loyalty seems to offer a solution on both ends. Companies can lessen their need to compete for attention, recruit new customers and re-attract previous ones. Consumers can make fewer decisions, and be rewarded for it. It’s no wonder that subscription services are popping up in almost every industry, from men’s personal care to meal services. Madison Reed, an online-based retailer of hair color and care products, is one such company.
Madison Reed has also capitalized on another facet of the transformed retail industry. Modern consumers are also modern citizens, with information about what’s happening around the world at their fingertips. That means they—we—are more informed about the ethical ramifications of consumption choices. There’s value, even more than before, in being a company that’s ethical, that’s free trade, that’s environmentally friendly and natural and healthy. In essence, there’s value in being good. At least, there’s value in being perceived as good.
At this, Madison Reed excels. Its marketing, from press releases to its website to its advertisements, continually emphasizes that its products are less toxic than traditional choices. Its ethic as a company—to empower women—fits perfectly with this image. The company pledged to avoid retouching and altering of photographs, a choice that’s been acclaimed by many. Combined with the fact that it’s founded and directed by a woman, Amy Errett, Madison Reed feels like a feminist manifesto.
It’s easy to forget that in its vision of happy, healthy, laughing women, everyone has hair dyed by Madison Reed products. It’s not that that’s a bad thing. Companies being successful is a thing worthy of acclaim, especially if they can do it while making ethical choices. And yet I worry about the day when it comes out that Madison Reed – or Aerie, or Fenty Beauty, or any of the other companies that occupy this same positive-vibes niche in the market—has business practices that violate its stated values.
It’s a question worth asking, as we’re watching Facebook going through a period of intense public suspicion. No longer is the tech giant universally perceived as a positive place to work, a force to connect people in the world. People are increasingly suspicious of Facebook’s motives and critical of its decisions. Just today, I read an article describing how young computer science grads are less inclined to work at Facebook than before (although their recruiting numbers are still great). Facebook’s fall from grace is by no means unique, but it is public, and it illustrates how quickly public opinion can shift.
When your business model depends on women liking and trusting the company as well as depending on the products, that’s a dangerous thing.