The medium is the message

by Phil Buckley on January 6, 2011

in Social Media

Joan Holloway - The Medium IS the Message

When people change the way they consume information, a lot of things start to change. I had heard the old catch-phrase “the medium is the message” before, but never really understood it until a few years ago while watching the first season of Mad Men (watch the scene on YouTube – no, really watch it before you go on, it’s only 1 minute).

In the scene from a 1960 Madison Avenue advertising agency, the overtly sexy head secretary swings over to tell the new secretary that an idea she mentioned casually impressed the ad execs and they would like her to write a bit more. The new girl asks if she should thank the guys for the opportunity. Joan (the head secretary) tells her that there’s no need for that, because the guys specifically told her to deliver the news. Then Joan hits the new girl with the line, “You know what they say, the medium is the message.” The scene ends as the camera lingers on the tight red dress as Joan walks away.

Maybe it took something that blatant for me to get it.

The original phrase comes from Marshall McLuhan’s pioneering study in media theory Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He noted that every medium has a different effect on us, so it alters how we view the message. A common example is the difference between reading a newspaper article about a terrible battle during World War II and seeing film of a similar battle from Vietnam in full color on the network news at dinner time.

So we are now experiencing a medium change. People are starting to do more and more online. When the largest chunk of 18 to 29 year old’s get their news from the Internet instead of television and newspapers and radio barely register for that group what does it mean?

When I worked for McClatchy newspapers for a few years, the battle cry was “save the print product!” The problem with that battle cry is that it’s an impossible task. The print newspaper business is changing and there’s nothing the big newspaper companies can do to stop it. When Microsoft approached the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1985 to collaborate on a CD-ROM, the offer was declined. At the time a complete set of encyclopedias cost about $2,000 and Britannica was confident that their profits would continue. In 1990 Britannica’s sales peaked at $650 million. In 1993 Microsoft released Encarta. By 1994 Britannica’s revenues had dropped to $325 million. In 1996 Britannica was sold for $135 million.

Your business is at a tipping point.

When your business has to survive in a world where a huge part of it is online, how will you fare? Are you prepared to do product fulfillment through a smart phone? Can you scale your customer service needs to Twitter? Do you have a plan in place to combat an organized Facebook campaign that is out to destroy your brand?

How is the new medium altering your message?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Tippett January 6, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Thanks for another great post, Phil. You’re absolutely right about adapting to survive. This month we’re releasing the new iPhone App for Calvert Labs. We’re the first preclinical lab to do so. We’re hoping that scientists are open to viewing study results on their smartphones. Guess we’ll see. Thanks, again.



Morgan Siem January 6, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Great post. I agree as well. To me the phrase is an important one to remember when selecting channels for clients. For instance, I think that by simply having a presence on Twitter or Facebook, a brand is sending a message that they are open for conversation and interaction. It shows that they want to be a part of the community that their consumers live in.

Additionally, the reputation of the channel you select as a medium sends a message. For instance, there’s a big difference between getting an invite to connect on MySpace vs. LinkedIn. Understanding the medium is an important part of delivering the right message to the right audience.


Phil Buckley January 7, 2011 at 9:17 am

@Jeff that’s really cool. I bet the adoption rate will be higher than anticipated – it always seems that business under-estimates how attached to their technology smartphone users are.


Phil Buckley January 7, 2011 at 9:20 am

@Morgan you are, as usual, right on. I think many companies that were successful before the social revolution just view the new platforms as one more layer to push their established messaging.


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