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Second Life’s not-so-secret treasure

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the July 22, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Ad Nauseam

Second Life’s not-so-secret treasure

Try to imagine the scene. It’s 1922. November 26. But there’s no winter chill in the air: with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the very idea of winter seems little more than a hallucination brought on by heat-induced delirium. We’re in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, a spot once favored for the burial of ancient pharaohs — until the pharaohs realized it was also favored by grave robbers and moved their treasure-filled tombs to more anonymous locations.

Although most Egyptologists are convinced the Valley of the Kings has been mined-out, Howard Carter is certain that a little-known king, Tutankhamen, is buried here. Following years of searching, he now stands before the doorway of a previously undiscovered tomb. With his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, standing beside him, he breaks open a small hole in the upper left corner and holds up a candle to test for noxious gasses. When the candle remains burning, showing that whatever else may lie within, the air at least has oxygen, he inserts the candle and looks inside.

“At first I could see nothing,” he later says, “but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold — everywhere the glint of gold.” For a while Carter doesn’t move, still trying to come to grips with the objects before him, objects which are not only shrouded in darkness, but which appear to be jumbled together with no regard for order. Finally Carnarvon, unnerved by Carter’s continuing silence, asks, “”Can you see anything?” Carter replies with one of the most famous lines in archaeological history: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Marketers have been searching for the treasure rumored to exist within Second Life for many years now, and still there are precious few who have peered within and, when asked if they can see anything, respond by saying, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Other virtual worlds appear capable of triggering this response. Certainly there is little difficulty in making out the wonderful things available in Habbo Hotel, Penguin Island, and the myriad other promotional treasure troves. So what makes Second Life such an enigma?

With apologies to Bill Clinton: “It’s the age group, stupid!”

Although virtual worlds are touted as being the playground of the young, Second Life stands out as one of the important exceptions. The “tweenies,” so profitable to the branding efforts in places like Penguin Island, are non-existent in Second Life. Anyone under 18 is relegated to a separate part of the grid. Furthermore, they make up a meagre 1% of the entire avatar count which in turn accounts for only .0.41% of the in world hours. So not only are they barely existent in Second Life, they are isolated and spend less time in world than any other demographic.

But what of that other sweet-spot demographic, the 18-24 year olds? The bad news is they make up a mere 23% of the avatars. The worse news is that they only account for 15% of the in world hours, a figure easily surpassed by those over 45 who make up 20%.

All in all, 75% of the avatars and 83% of the in world hours come from those between the ages of 25 and 90. In fact, those above 35 make up almost 50% of the time spent in world. Second Life, by and large, isn’t a playground for the young. But you’d hardly know it from the marketing forays.

Everyone from American Apparel to Much Music has made a bid for the youth flocking to Second Life without seeming to notice that it’s not youth who are doing the flocking.

And even when they do try targeting the more mature end of the population, the advertising companies generally muck it up. Is this because they’re still trying to come to grips with the vagaries of virtual worlds? Partly, but the fact is they’re screwing it up pretty badly in the real world too.

Chuck Nyren, an advertising consultant, makes some pretty compelling arguments that despite representing the largest disposable income of any group, those over 40 are poorly served by advertising. “advertising agencies are pretty much run by kids in their 20s and early 30s” he says in Advertising to Baby Boomers. Since “the general rule of thumb is that the best advertising is written to sell to yourself,” this means that “the wrong people are doing it” for the market.

Those of us who fall into the age bracket of 35 and older can understand what he’s talking about. Not long ago a Canadian bank created a number of TV spots designed to promote the idea that they were adapting to new demands from their older customers. “Can a bank change?” asked the ads, accompanied by different people holding up hand-made signs, an obvious reference to the Bob Dylan video, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” This was accompanied by an instrumental version of Dylan’s anthem, “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”

The creative was undoubtedly the inspiration of some under-30 who wanted to bring the idea of a changing bank to an aging population grown resentful towards banking policies increasingly detrimental to non-corporate clients. The Dylan tune, “The Times, They Are A’Changin’,” seemed an obvious way to bring the message home. Of course, those of us actually familiar not only with the essential message of the original song, but also with its lyrics couldn’t help but feel the spots were revealing more truth than the agency had intended. The line, “You’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone,” seemed all too appropriate to the attitude banks had been displaying over the past couple of decades.

But it’s not just misapplied pop songs which expose an ad industry flailing in the dark when trying to reach its most lucrative market. The ads themselves show not only a complete lack of understanding of their target prospects, but with their frequent (to the point of ubiquitous) portrayal of adults as inept, bungling fools, they reveal a remarkable disdain toward them.

When you couple this broad, industry-wide incompetence with the uncertainties inherent in coping with the emerging markets of virtual worlds, the result is a hodgepodge of misinformed and disorganized advertising efforts that please no one.

There are treasures of enormous value to be mined from Second Life, but while those peering inside are trying to adjust to the unfamiliar light, they should bear in mind that like those discovered in King Tut’s tomb, these treasures have been around for a long time.

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