When media is everywhere, is the medium still the message?

—Society Etc.’s Mike Sharma has been reflecting on Marshall McLuhan’s most famous axiom, and wonders if digital media has changed the world so profoundly that the message is now the message—

Almost 60 years ago, the pioneering Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan sent the communications world into a frenzy with his then sensational pronouncement, “The medium is the message.”

It was the early 1960s, and mass media—led by the explosive influence of network television, but complemented by radio, film, print and, to some extent, computers—were shaping culture to the point where, McLuhan observed, the media vehicles themselves were more important and consequential than the content they carried.

It was the media that most influenced the way we experienced the world, so it was fair to say that the medium was the message.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about McLuhan’s ground-breaking theory, and it got me wondering what tweaks he might make today.

Media and society have become so tightly intertwined and interdependent that one is no longer separated from the other: media and society are now fused together. They are one and the same.

Even the expression “social media” means more than simply a series of media platforms. “Social media” is now a way of defining and understanding our full social fabric, and the means by which many actually get their content, including the “news.”

In fact, in this digital age where media touch points are now omnipresent and media and society are one, the media that carry the message are vastly taken for granted.

In our context of marketing and advertising, that means consumers will remember the message, but rarely on what platform they saw it on. Therefore, content, more than ever before is—and will be—the differentiating factor. In other words, it’s the message that is trumping the media.

Here are a few of examples to illustrate my point.

With more than 70 billion views worldwide, the #BookTok hashtag, has been cited for driving a resurgence of interest in books in many countries since the start of the pandemic.

In an effort to reach a younger audience, book retailer Indigo partnered with TikTok Canada to create an online book club using the hashtag to feature discussions on book recommendations, a program that Indigo credited for boosting its profit last quarter.

In other words, content on the platform is driving retail execution and the marketing plan. Content on the platform is becoming the agency creative department. Ultimately, content on the platform is driving sales by connecting consumers with product.

That’s profound, because media-generated content becomes the marketing idea/strategy/tactic all in one. The loop is complete. The message truly is the message.

In fact, TikTok recommends that advertisers leverage their content creators, and the hashtags that are trending, to deliver breakthrough results on their platform, and has developed tools that allow us to identify both: creators we’d like to use, and hashtags we can leverage.

With one of our agency’s outerwear clients, we tie the content in our campaigns to the local city weather patterns to ensure that the message we are delivering reaches consumers at the time they are thinking of making outdoor clothing purchases. The weather-relevant message becomes hyper-relevant, regardless of which medium we execute it on. And so, once again, it’s the message, more than the media, that is writing the story.

We also represent a musician, AHI, who literally wrote a brand framework for his new album release “Prospect.” We helped him define audiences and affinities for each song on the album and made sure that the individual music content reached the best potential audience. In essence, we created a connection framework for each piece of content, indifferent to the medium on which they would be deployed—streaming, terrestrial radio or even vinyl—where the message (the song) could connect with consumers in a meaningful way through their preferred medium.

The message resonated and the results have been astounding. His new album is outperforming his past releases by four times, and one of his tracks has been on Spotify’s top 50 global folk songs for the past 40+ weeks (since its release). AHI now has over one million listeners each month on Spotify alone.

Simply put, the message today carries far more weight than it ever did. McLuhan once stated that content was just the juicy piece of meat carried by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.

I would argue that today, the medium has become that distraction, while the consumer is shaped by the content and messages which assault us through all waking hours of our day. Now, do you get the message?

 Mike Sharma is founder and president of Society, etc., a Toronto-based independent media planning and buying agency.