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Ask anyone born in the past century what a ‘muffler’ is and they’ll likely say: “it’s a car part”. A hundred years ago, everyone knew what a ‘muffler’ was, too: “it’s a scarf”. And a few hundred years before that a ‘muffler’ was a type of metal glove worn with armor. “I’m taking my muffler to the shop to get it fixed!” meant something very different 500 years ago than it does today.
Technology changes terminology. That’s no surprise. Today a ‘computer’ is a machine for doing calculations. It used to mean a person who did calculations. So it shouldn’t be surprising that new technology for delivering advertising, like search engines, will affect the meaning of the words ‘advertising’ and ‘advertisement’.
Anyone born in the 1900s can tell you what the old word advertisement meant. It was TV commercials dicing your movie into unbearably short snippets or some glossy pages in a magazine which you had to flip past to get from the end of the first section of the story you were reading to the start of the last section.
The old word advertisement meant an intrusive, irrelevant, often insulting interruption. A talking head with a bottle of lotion telling you that you’re ugly and you smell bad too. A 2 inch by 2 inch picture of some diamond-encrusted watch that costs more than most people’s annual salary rendered in grainy black-and-white and placed next to a photo of the wreckage of a car bomb in Baghdad. A gaggle of brainless bikini babes ogling a surfing dog because he has beer.
To get attention, ads on the radio and TV slouched towards goofiness. Or were repetitive. Or obnoxious. Or all three. They were applied directly to your forehead. They were applied directly to your forehead. They were applied directly to your forehead.
But then there was the day the universe changed. New technology meant that relevant text ads could be paired to a user’s search even if that search had never been done before. And, just as importantly, strict editorial guidelines kept out the ‘L@@K’ gimmicks found elsewhere and the multiple exclamation points!!!!! These days, ads don’t need glitzy pictures or even sound. They don’t have to be memorable or funny or heart-warming or shocking. They don’t have to push the limits. They just have to be short and descriptive: “Find a plumber in Manchester. Same day service.” And the new ad platforms like Apple’s iAds for mobile devices, the demographically targeted display ads on Facebook, and Twitter’s ‘Promoted Tweets’ are more likely to push that trend forward than to reverse it.
I remember when my dad first got e-mail access in the mid 1990s and received his first piece of spam. “Dear Friend…” it began, or something like that. My dad read the first few sentences intensely before turning to me and exclaiming “What the heck is this?!” I read the first two words. “Dad, it’s an ad. Haven’t you ever seen an ad before?” But, I guess if it was just plain text and didn’t have belching frogs wearing party hats, it was harder for him to see it for what it was.
The new word advertisement is much closer in meaning to the word ‘content’ and ‘product description’ than it is to the old word advertisement. Landing pages are just extended advertisements. For that matter, your entire website is basically an ad for your company. This blog post is, to some extent, an ad for The Search Agency just as your personal blog and Facebook page are, in some ways, ads for you. And your profile on that dating website? That’s definitely an advertisement. The new word advertisement is not synonymous with demeaning or wacky or sexist or LOUD. It just means relevant, informative and unobtrusive. Could it be just a coincidence that Google, iAds, Facebook and Twitter spell ‘gift’?