Rewriting McLuhan: the medium is NOT the message

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan shaped how marketers and advertisers operated for the rest of the century with his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Larry Mogelonsky addresses how modern technology has made this obsolete.

Larry Mogelonsky

Larry Mogelonsky

By Larry Mogelonsky, www.lma.ca

Have you heard of Marshall McLuhan? You should have! He’s Canadian first off, and in 1964, he helped define how marketers and advertisers operated for the rest of the century with his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Sadly, modern technology has made his wisdom obsolete. While elements of this statement are still true, they are rapidly waning.

The story behind this terse, bold statement requires a touch of backstory. In the era when McLuhan made this statement, the number of media was much smaller. Roughly speaking, you could choose from: radio, movies, television, magazines, newspapers, catalogues, direct mail and billboards. With so few options, each dominated a specific communications niche which bestowed the message with certain presupposed characteristics. 

For example, if your product appeared on TV, by virtue of the fact that advertising time was limited, and thus very expensive, on this medium, it qualified your message and gave it a certain air of significance. Moreover, people back then trusted to a greater degree the brand messages and company claims they saw and heard. 

Multiple media market

The same bestowals cannot be made for today’s media market because of how many different media there are. You want TV? Well, you have to choose between broadcast, cable, satellite and now all the subscription-based usurpers like Netflix. What about radio? AM and FM are still around while satellite and Internet channels grow in strides. Print media may be in decline, but most savvy organizations that operated in this space have already shifted their resources to websites as well as company-directed blogs and social media accounts. 

At present, we live in an era without limits. In the 1960s, television exuded exclusivity because there were so few actual channels. Now there are so many for a consumer to select that a product appearing on one will not have the same impact. 

Message determines the medium

Sure, the medium still qualifies and categorizes the message to some degree, but the reverse is probably more true: the message determines the medium. If you have an important message that can stated in 120 characters, post it to Twitter and your Facebook fan page. Need an additional 800 words to substantiate your point? Post it to the corporate blog or mark it up like you would a press release, and then link to it on your social networks.

Theoretical argument is all well and good, but marketing is all about the application of these principles. Knowing that the medium is no longer the message means that in order for your consumer communications to be successful, there must be a renewed emphasis on the message itself. For instance, suppose you decide to start a newspaper advertising campaign. It doesn’t matter that you are pursuing print; the only way this campaign will be impactful is if the advertising message and design are verifiably catchy.

Message quality is the new norm

Moving on to social media, perhaps you can see why it’s so critical to understand why message quality is the new norm. In the past year, marketers the world over have touted that hoteliers must engage customers on new facets like Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat. I agree that you should, but only if you have a message worthy of communicating. 

If you look behind any of the recent hotel success stories involving these novel social networks, you’ll undoubtedly find a central idea that would appeal to consumers regardless of the chosen medium. My advice for you is to think long and hard about the content of your message as well as how memorable and interactive it is. To be brusque, you won’t garner a noteworthy rep from foodies online if your menu doesn’t dazzle and you won’t excel on an image-centric network without stellar photography of meaningful objects or evocative places. Once you have honed the concept, only then should you think about the dissemination strategy. 

Mr. McLuhan, your contribution to the fields of philosophy and communication theory cannot be understated. I commend you for all that you did to advance our knowledge in these areas. But just as Einstein rewrote Newtonian physics, so too must your claim to fame be revised for the 21st century.

Larry Mogelonsky (larry@lma.ca) is the president and founder of LMA Communications Inc. (www.lma.ca). His latest anthology book titled Llamas Rule and his first book Are You an Ostrich or a Llama? are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.