What is Advertising?

Apr 15, 2007 Michael Wurzer

Until recently, I’ve never cared about advertising in any way, except as I tried to click away from it on the rare occasion I watched television. The recent discussion over Zillow’s reported for sale by anyone strategy, however, has made me think more about advertising and what it means today.

As a consumer, I’ve always thought of advertising in a very narrow way: the ads on television, in newspapers and magazines, the pop-ups or blinkers on web sites, and the spam in my e-mail in-box. After reading this laundry list, if you’re like me, you probably have a slightly bad taste in your mouth right now. There’s just something icky about traditional advertising. Advertising is others trying to push stuff at you, whether you want it or not, and usually in a condescending, overly emotional way, tugging and tearing at your heart strings or playing on your fears.

These traditions of advertising have made me disinterested, at best. Even in our business, we put out an ad once in awhile but have always struggled with the sound bite approach. Who we are and what we offer isn’t a catch-phrase. That’s one of the reasons we started the FBS Blog, with the objective of creating a conversation that hopefully is useful to us, our current and prospective customers, and the industry as a whole. By no means is the FBS Blog “advertising”. In fact, we (like most bloggers) avoid self-promotion as much as possible.

But, make no mistake, blogging is about advertising, just a new kind of advertising. Instead of the sound bite, blogs offer more depth, a glimpse into the substance of the people behind the company and its products. Using the buzz-phrase of the day, blogs are about transparency. Perhaps all of web 2.0 is a new kind of advertising or promotion, with the potential for more depth and hopefully truth through greater participation.

I read an article this morning about how companies are creating new video channels on the web that are void of advertising or any direct reference to their products, but are nonetheless described as “the ultimate soft sell.”  The article concludes that we may be “dashing into a world where old distinctions between media and marketing are becoming increasingly — and at times disturbingly — blurry.” The author suggests that some of the new media may be confusing and that’s certainly been true of Zillow’s reported for sale by anyone feature.

I think that’s what troubled me about the for sale by anyone approach and the denial by Zillow that what they were allowing was advertising. Unlike blogging and other transparency efforts, the act of “reporting” a for sale sign, a price, and your picture next to a house to which you have no relationship seems more like old school advertising than transparency. Both the feature itself and the promotion of the feature are potentially misleading, as evidenced by the many views already expressed elsewhere.

At the same time, the aim of creating conversations around the home buying and selling process is a good, if not great, idea. I write this blog because I believe in FBS and want to communicate who we are to others. More importantly, we recognize that FBS must continue to learn and change and that such learning is easier through discussion. So, blogs present the simultaneous opportunity to define and communicate who you are in an open and honest way, which I think is much more likely to result in satisfied customers who know what they are buying into with our company and products. Similar conversations surrounding homes have the same power and benefits.

Are the discussions on blogs sometimes uncomfortable? Sure. Is communicating what you believe in difficult? Sure. Is having your view challenged uncomfortable? Sure. Is learning and defining and re-defining who you are uncomfortable? Sure. Transparency can be difficult. Period. But, on the whole, it’s better than old school advertising, which was intent on sound bites and emotional ploys. Sorting through the truth is always difficult but it’s easier with more information than less, with more views than fewer. Zillow may have started the conversation about homes for sale in a way with which I don’t agree, but I am in favor of the conversations and hope they evolve into an open and honest discussion that improves the home buying and selling process. Because I believe the ends rarely justify the means, however, I also expect the conversations ultimately will find a home somewhere other than Zillow.

Alternate Ending: Here’s some transparency for you. As I wrote this post, I struggled with my own conclusion on the matter. At first, I ended with the above conclusion. Upon continued reflection, however, I think an equally, if not more, valid conclusion is that the difficulty I and others have had with Zillow’s reported for sale by anyone feature is that the term advertising is being redefined. Zillow’s denial that they were encouraging others to advertise others’ listings conflicts with traditional definitions of advertising, but likely reflects the new world of the new transparent or objective advertising. See, I said this wasn’t easy.