A.D.D. Men

Consumers are dumb. For decades, this has been the bedrock assumption of advertising. For obvious reasons, no one in the field wants to be caught voicing it out loud, but think about it: You endure an unwanted interruption in a TV show you’re watching or an article you’re reading, and somehow that annoyance causes you to spend money you wouldn’t have spent on something you didn’t want. That’s dumb.

But recently, a new spirit of humility has settled over Madison Avenue. No longer is it fashionable to look down on consumers as soft-headed rubes to be pumped full of artificial desires and relieved of their paychecks.

Instead, they’re being treated as enlightened beings to be flattered, courted and cultivated. The old script went something like this: We’ll tell you what to crave and you’ll crave it because we are the almighty gods of culture and you are a bunch of herd animals in Day-Glo Crocs. The new one says: You tell us what we should be and we’ll become that—and if we’re not doing it fast enough, won’t you please let us know via email/SMS/Twitter/Facebook?

It’s nothing less than a full-fledged power inversion. Nowadays, it’s the marketers who are feeling vulnerable and the consumers who reap the benefits—such as they are.

This sea change owes a lot to what’s newly possible—heeding the vox populi is a lot easier since social networking and microblogging came around to amplify it—but also to what’s no longer possible. “The old model was called ‘command and control’: We will force a message down your throat with a massive media buy,” says Andrew Essex, chief executive of the downtown ad agency Droga5. “You can’t buy relevance anymore.” (And those who try are apt to wind up like Peter Arnell, the guru-cum-laughingstock behind last year’s disastrous rebranding of Tropicana orange juice.)

Command-and-control ad campaigns still happen, of course, but when they do, it’s as often as not under the guise of the New Humility. Witness what’s unfolding in the tech sector, where two of the world’s biggest brands are urging consumers to see them as nothing more or less than gigantic mirrors of their own needs and strengths. Microsoft is currently telling its customers that the new Windows 7 was entirely their idea, and Yahoo’s new slogan, “It’s Y!ou,” assures them that the company exists solely as a vehicle for their self-actualization. (I should note here that my primary employer, AOL, competes directly with Microsoft and Yahoo on a variety of fronts.)

Or consider the industrywide fad for “crowdsourcing.” Everyone from Doritos to Mutual of Omaha is asking customers to create their own commercials on the theory that no one knows the mind of a corn-chip muncher or annuities purchaser like a corn-chip muncher or annuities purchaser.

There’s a deep irony here, and it’s not just the irony of multibillion-dollar corporate behemoths trying to pass themselves off as paragons of grass-roots responsiveness. It’s that they’re doing so despite the existence right in their neighborhood of a big, fat indication that what consumers really want is brands they can follow, not brands they have to steer. I’m talking  about Apple. No other company has been so secretive, so high-handed, so almost authoritarian in its treatment of its customers. (How’s that removable iPhone battery coming along, Mr. Jobs?) And no brand is as universally recognized as cool. “It shows that if you’ve got the right product and the confidence in that product to say, ‘This is something you should want,’ that can still work,” says Jonah Bloom, CEO of Breaking Media and former editor in chief of Advertising Age.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with crowdsourcing or with inviting consumers to see themselves reflected in one’s brand. But, ultimately, it’s a form of punting, one whose current popularity owes less to the promise it holds than to the fear and disorientation that pervades the advertising industry (and, indeed, all media). Truly great advertising still requires individual vision. Ask yourself this: If Mad Men’s Don Draper were a real person living today, would he be working for Apple or Microsoft?

Either way, you can be damn sure he wouldn’t be tweeting about it.