I used to attend Earth's biggest mobile phone conference, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, when it was still called 3GSM and being held in Cannes. Despite this apparent wealth of experience, I remain the one person I know whose only habitual mobile device is a book. I still make telephone calls. When I try to answer my wife's smartphone, I'm not smart enough to hit the right button. Invariably, I cut off the caller and end up saying, "Hello? Hello? Hello!" into the existential void.
I do watch TV, though. Lately, in New York, I've seen lots of commercial salvos from the latest consumer electronics war. It struck me that Samsung's ironic Galaxy III anti-Apple commercials and Microsoft's Windows 8 effort -- especially those ads with the adorable little girl who paints smiles on her touch-screen and pirouettes across the rumpus room -- are both beating the socks off Apple's latest iPhone.
This battle is so artistically lopsided that I can't recall seeing any ads for the new iPhone 5. I know they're out there, but they don't register. I wonder how Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) can hope to prevail when its ad team has so dismally failed to brainwash me.
Better question: Does it matter?
Regardless of the quality of both commercials and competition, I assume Apple will casually brush aside whatever products its rivals throw up against its every new iGadget. I figure this because Apple's iFranchise has a mystique. It metastasizes invisibly, through word of mouth or crowdsourcing, perhaps just by not washing your hands after going to the bathroom. Even before the news media officially canonized Steve Jobs, Apple didn't have consumers so much as it had believers. Samsung's ads bow to this reality, depicting Apple zealots queued around the block days in advance to buy -- sight unseen, with no advance advertising -- the latest iThing.
The Apple iPhenomenon contributes to a broad sense that advertising in general has become superfluous. The 2012 election campaign served to reinforce this perception. Republican donors -- unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- pumped truckloads of money into TV attack ads in presidential and senatorial races. But they came away virtually winless.
The popular conclusion -- that ad bucks don't buy what they used to buy -- has devastated media. Print publications are dying while advertisers flee to the Internet, only to discover, after further review, that Internet ads are more ignored than print ads. But nobody wants to go back to print because… well, it's so old school.
Next question: Has the buying public become too sophisticated to be swayed by any form of advertising? Is the art of the ad, after print, the next communication medium to die? And if the future really is commercial-free, how are we going to find out about all the new stuff we just absolutely have to buy? From Facebook? By tweet? From the Ginsu/Vego-matic hustlers on UHF TV at 2:00 a.m.?
Wait. Let's look a little closer.
Part of the "What next?" answer might have emerged -- less obviously -- from the election. While big spenders on both sides were squandering millions on TV ads, one campaign was testing the impact of microtargeting: spotting voters one by one who might be swayed to favor President Obama and the Democratic ticket.
Once identified as a prospect through a massive computerized data-mining effort, each voter got a little love. The Obama team phoned, emailed, knocked on doors, dropped in, and schmoozed. This produced a more successful get-out-the-vote operation than any expert was able to predict. Technology generated all the sales contacts, but personal contact sealed every deal.
Ironically, this strange reversion to individual attention reminds me of an advertising concept I encountered 40 years ago, when I found myself editing an auto glass industry magazine. Like virtually every reputable trade journal then (and until about 10 years ago), we sent each issue out free, on the condition that each subscriber was "qualified." To be qualified, subscribers had to fill out a detailed registration proving that they were active in the target industry. Advertisers, of course, loved this approach -- called controlled circulation -- because it focused their ads on exactly the audience most likely to buy their products.
Controlled circulation was arguably the most effective advertising medium ever devised. Today it's dead -- killed by its beneficiaries, who fled to the Web so they could pay for the right to be deleted. Its ghost, I guess, can be discerned in the far costlier, more labor-intensive practice of microtargeting. But it's not quite the same.
What used to be possible on a dream and a shoestring now requires Sheldon Adelson's checkbook and a roomful of supercomputers.