One of my pet hates is when data is presented with no question or commentary, as though the implications of any graph were self-evident and universally understood.
One of those graphs that I’m sure you have seen is the one showing how long different technologies have taken to spread through the population. Long, gradually rising lines show the time taken for newspapers, radio and television to reach a million users (or 10 million or 100 million; nobody ever really bothers with the units, as the gradient seems to tell you everything). And then we get to the main event, the internet – or, more recently, the smartphone. The lines seem to rocket up almost vertically, like an Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s, implying the same dizzying change in the possibilities of the world around us.
When presented in conferences or meetings, it’s one of those data mic-drop moments as the presenter clicks on to the chart and just looks at it. See, they’re saying, this line is steeper, so that means it’s better. Like the moment in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel shows off the amp that goes up to 11, bemused as Marty asks him why 11 would be better and just repeating that it goes up to 11. The internet is just better.
Let’s spend a little more time looking at that data and thinking about what it really might mean.
Each line is steeper than the last, and the more lines there are behind it the faster the trajectory of the subsequent lines. That’s largely because these aren’t independent variables. The internet and smartphones grow fast not because they’re in some way better or more powerful than TV or radio. They grow fast because of TV and newspapers and radio. Each new media grows faster because each new media helps to create an ever-more effectively connected world that spreads the next technology faster. They’re not independent; they’re entirely dependent on one another. Launch the smartphone into a world with no internet, TV, radio or print media and see how fast it grows. Spoiler alert: not very.
What are we to deduce from this speed? It doesn’t have any inherent virtues. Sure, it tells us that they’re popular things, effectively priced and that they exist in a world where ideas spread fast. In terms of popularity and reach, we can deduce that they are as important as TV and radio (although no more important), since they reach almost as many people. The speed with which they got to that stage means a few other things that are seldom discussed.
The speed means that we don’t have a deep and extensive body of evidence about how to use these channels. We had the luxury of learning more gradually, in a world where things moved a little more slowly when it came to TV. With the internet and smartphones, we’re spraying a lot of money around without the luxury of time to adapt. You can argue that the quantity of data they throw off means we can learn faster – that may be true, but it’s more likely that we don’t really know what we’re doing.
The other thing the speed means is that they exist in a highly volatile and hastily developed regulatory framework. When things happen slowly, you have the time to consider laws and regulations to ensure that trust is built and an effective balance is struck between the good and the bad things they offer. If you haven’t been paying much attention to the news, I’m afraid I have to break it to you that it isn’t what’s happening with the internet right now. Legislators and tech companies are scrambling to keep up with the implications of an engagement-based business model in a world where very bad things keep happening. And when it comes to advertising, trust really matters. Regulations help build trust in advertising and marketing to the benefit of us all.
I don’t think that most people use that chart to communicate to their audience that the internet and smartphones are relatively poorly understood advertising channels with a volatile regulatory framework. But perhaps they should. And next time someone presents some data to you without properly explaining what it might mean, maybe ask them a few difficult questions. You won’t be popular, but you might get a lot closer to the truth.
Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO