Advertisers are Feeling Queasy about Your Digital Detox

One of the trends we saw grow in 2019 was the idea of a digital detox. Digital minimalism is taking off, as people seek to unchain themselves from their devices and regain a sense of control in how and what they consume.

“As digital culture moves out of its honeymoon phase, a backlash industry has sprung up, with coaches to help people break up with their devices, digital detox camps and tech diets,” writes Tiffany Hsu in The New York Times. “Mindful of the new mindfulness, Apple and Google have incorporated screen time monitors into their products.”

Research from Hearts & Science shows us that most mobile users have a growing sense of tech fatigue, and many are scaling back their app use, according to Hsu. Lest we forget, 2019 was also the year Google’s Experiments division launched their cheeky “paper phone” app, designed to make it possible to leave our phones at home while still having what we need from our phones close at hand.

And how is the ad industry taking all of this?

Let’s just say they could use a detox from the detox.

“Less time spent with mobile devices means fewer chances to reach consumers on these devices, increasing the cost of mobile advertising in the near-term and forcing marketers to rethink where and how they spend advertising dollars in the long-term,” wrote Renee Cassard in the Hearts & Science study.

Changing consumer habits are just part of the problem for advertisers; the groundbreaking California Consumer Privacy Act is changing the game for all digital marketers too. Hsu notes investment in digitals ads showed “a noticeable slowdown” in 2019 over years past, reflecting both the challenges in reaching consumers over the noise, and concerns over legal compliance.

Instead, many brands are using the current detox climate as timely topics in ad campaigns, like this one from Audible.

“Audible, the Amazon app that produces audiobooks and other audio content, addressed digital fatigue in a British commercial that shows a woman scrolling through her smartphone only to be bombarded by what she sees on her screen, everything from cat memes to an avatar of a bare-chested male suitor,” Hsu writes. “The chaos disappears when she selects Audible and pops in her headphones, replacing the internet noise with the calm of an audiobook.”

“Other companies — Miller Lite, Stella ArtoisPringles and Grey Goose Vodka among them — have picked up on the desire for digital detox,” Hsu continues, “making commercials meant to convey the notion that they know just how you feel. Some of the brands with the most pointedly anti-tech ads are the tech companies themselves, which use messages about the isolation and distraction ushered in by tech devices to promote … more tech devices.”

Yet in spite of the public-service-like tone of some of these ads, some ad industry insiders say it’s doubtful we’ll see any significant drop-off of digital ad spend in the near future.

“It’s possible that if half of the population decided to no longer use an internet-connected device, you’d have an impact,” said Brian Wieser, the head of business intelligence at GroupM, the media investing arm of the ad giant WPP. “But if an individual merely reduced their use, how many advertisers would be unable to accomplish their goals using that medium? Would it just be more expensive? Would they just have to use a different tactic?”

Let’s not kid ourselves that mobile ads are going away, especially as app use increases. But as Jim Misener of creative agency 50,000feet notes, there’s “a bit of a pullback” from people who are concerned about privacy and security.

“For marketers, there’s a tension between the recognition of those needs, and the need to address demands for personalized, customized experiences,” he said. “You want to build awareness while decreasing annoyance.”

Meanwhile, the time is ripe to experiment with a non-invasive and highly trusted form of advertising, in print. Credibility matters more than ever for brands, and print is a favored platform for building brand trust and true engagement. Media buyers need to stop failing brands due to their digital bias, and recognize and support the use of print and other traditional media for deeper engagement.