The Message is the Medium

I’ve been in Europe all week and just got done with the European Trend Day conference in Zurich, organized by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute. So instead of a regular post, you get the slide-deck for my talk, The Message is the Medium.

The slides are probably going to be a bit cryptic for those unfamiliar with McLuhan’s theory of media, so here are some (hopefully helpful) notes.

For the talk, I decided to explore the changing foundations of marketing, starting with Drucker’s famous line that the purpose of business is to create a customer,” and try and figure out if that line needs to be rethought. That led me to McLuhan’s  famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” as an important assumption underlying Drucker’s definition.

The basic idea is that the Internet has emerged as a sort of meta-medium within which traditional communication media, such as video/text/audio as well as arbitrary objects (media in the general sense),  exist in a very fluid and agile form accessible to all. This allows any propagating message to shape its own communication path. So McLuhan’s aphorism gets turned around.

Another way to think about this is as follows: in the message producer context, the medium is the message, but in the consumer context, the message is  (and has always been) the medium, because it gets transformed into a social object that mediates consumer discourses. The Internet amplifies and expands the power of the consumer context, so the shift in the balance of power from producers to consumers has led to the overall message is the medium character in the relationship among producer, message and receiver.

One consequence is that marketing and the persuasive arts in general have seen a curious trend towards increased certainty in execution and decreased certainty in objectives. Better rifles, foggier targets.

As a result, emerging marketing models have gradually been shifting from a finite game orientation, based on campaigns with clear goals, to an infinite game orientation, based on persistent (and responsive) presence in the consumer context.

At some point, I’ll try and write up a long-form version of what I said, but for now, the slides and this explanation will have to do.

I’ll be in Paris for the next couple of days and then in India for a couple of weeks, so I hope to have a bunch of fresh ideas to work with for my next regular post.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I’m intrigued – can you be more specific in what you mean by ‘increased certainty in execution’?

  2. @Dan – think of things like A/B tests. We increasingly know what works, but to what end? Conversion used to be the end, now we recognize it as just the beginning.

  3. With an individual now almost totally immersed in media, yes, there is less importance on the medium itself. The target is to induce the fog, by having rifles fire at all times, and not hit one customer necessarily. Random Jacques Ellul quotes could follow ….