Twenty years ago I was a young member of the Society of Newspaper Designers. “If it bleeds, it reads,” the jaded editors would say.

But have you noticed lately there seem to be more headlines— especially in advertising— that simply don’t make sense?

Here’s my emerging theory. We are increasingly straying into the wrong audience’s targeting stream. Or, more likely, the advertising targeters are missing their targets and hitting you and me instead. Why? Stay with me.

It happened to me awhile back with the BMW Mini Cooper campaign, “Small is the new black.” The sentence didn’t make a lick of sense to me. I drove past that billboard for days, saying it over and over to myself. “Small is the new black. Small is the new black.”  I was sure the sentence made sense to someone, just not me.

“I‘m IN the ad business!” I reasoned. “I write clever headlines for tough audiences, why don’t I get this?”

Of course (after days) the etymology of the clever phrase finally began to dawn on me: Brown is the new black. Small is the new big. Small is the new black. Okay. I got it.

In my laborious deciphering process, something larger dawned on me. BMW’s North American ad agency du jour simply missed their demographic target and hit me instead. But why? What’s different now? Why does this seem to be happening more frequently?

Here’s the answer. Wait. Did I mention that said agency purchased this billboard space on a rural two-lane highway in the middle of Northern Michigan nowhere, in February when there are no tourists? Around here (in February) the summer little-black-dress crowd accessorized with their Prada entourage are not buying BMWs, mostly because they’re not here. The trendy phrase “_____ is the new black” just doesn’t carry in these parts, let alone in February.

Here’s the answer. The difference now is the economy. These demographic crossfire casualties are the effects of fear and desperation combined with bad information or carelessness. It’s the same set of conditions that cause collateral damage and friendly fire incidents on our military battlefields.

Have you had a similarly perplexing advertising experience? There’s a growing likelihood your confusion doesn’t result from being uninformed, culturally unaware, or even a little slow (as perhaps it may have been in my case).

The softer reality is that you’re not in the targeted advertising demographic profile. You stumbled into someone else’s ad stream and got hosed. It‘s demographic crossfire. New economic realities are changing the advertisers’ battlefield dynamics. Some advertisers are not adapting well.

More in Part Two about how to aim advertising dollars away from wasteful, disastrous misfires.

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