There is now an abundance of media available, with people spending an average of 12 hours a day consuming it. But Faris Yakob argues, brands should return to thinking of quality, rather than cost, when it comes to advertising in this new media environment.

This month, we created a guide to balanced media diets based on research about reported psychological well-being following consumption. We modelled it on the food pyramid, a diagrammatic recommendation used for decades to guide eating habits. The idea behind both is that some things are better for you than others and that balance comes from limiting harmful/maximising healthy consumption. It seems to be an idea whose time has come and we were asked to discuss it with journalists and in a live radio interview in the US.

The media environment recently flipped from scarcity to abundance. We tend to gorge when faced with plenty and variety, and now spend an average of 12 hours a day consuming media. It’s a staggering amount of time that we often allocate without consideration. The confluence of the attention economy and the glowing rectangle in your pocket has pushed media into every nook of your day. We default to social media whenever there is a break between meetings (or during them). The research indicates that the social media we graze passively makes us feel bad – unsatisfied, angry, anxious. When we are more actively involved in choosing what to watch, or when we actively communicate with people, or limit the amount of commercial media we consume, we feel better. However, since we are cognitive misers and easily get decision fatigue, we are easy targets for a Facebook notification. We tend to consume the easiest, least-satisfying media the most and correspondingly advertising money concentrates there.

What impact does it have on brand communication when it appears in environments that make us feel bad? Back in 2010, a colleague excitedly exhorted the virtues of audience buying to me (it is still being touted as a leap forward today). I raised concerns. If you can buy the audience anywhere online, more cheaply than on prestige publications, what happens to context? The craft of media planning was filtering the baseline requirement of reaching the right audience for the cheapest amount through a qualitative strategic layer because not all impressions are created equal. Their seeming fungibility is a convenient fiction. Otherwise, the task could be assigned to a spreadsheet that calculates the most efficient reach and frequency for the budget. Media such as television and cinema convey stature. Certain print titles confer trust and gravitas (or used to).

We judge brands, like people, by the company they keep. When programmatic advertising is served alongside terrorist videos, it jars. Once the press points it out, clients get upset. Another aspect of context is modality: the same audience reading the Sunday papers are in a different mood than when listening to breakfast radio the next morning. Modality should be easy to cater to online, but internet advertising seems to exist in a constant state of now.

The context of communication changes how we process it. We rate the believability of the same headlines differently based on what magazine we think they came from. That is part of the basis for the media pyramid: some media are more trustworthy than others but on social media, those signals are intentionally eroded by the normalisation of the stream.

Recently, I spoke at a How Brands Grow event and chatted with Professor Byron Sharp. He got a few questions about media allocation and (paraphrasing) gave a simple answer: buy the largest amount of the highest-quality exposures against all category buyers for the lowest price (in that order). Quality involves viewability (a non-viewable impression is an oxymoron) but also attention level and context, which have been dismantled by audience buying.

We have it backwards, starting with cost rather than quality. The ambition of the media pyramid is to prompt people to allocate their attention with intention, which might lead them to consume less easy junk media and invest time in options such as books, theatre, museums, concerts, games, socialising – all of which make us feel better afterwards, according to research. Brands can reach their audiences there through experiences and sponsorships – placements that cannot be divorced from context. Until we can correctly measure and price the quality of impressions, algorithms will continue to buy audiences for brands in low-quality environments that make the audience feel bad, to boot.