Brian Creath

People Don’t Read Anymore. (Except for you, right now.)

In Advertising, Communications, Marketing, Messaging, Positioning, Strategy on April 27, 2009 at 4:14 pm


It has been a standard marketing axiom for the past two decades: People just don’t read anymore. Originally, this thinking was attached to the printed word, as in “people don’t read books, or newspapers anymore.” In recent years, however, it has become a more general indictment — one which has been used to justify everything from how much copy should be used in marketing materials to how much funding should go to education.

During his keynote speech at the Macworld 2008 Expo, Steve Jobs, discussing Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader said, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” He noted: “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

Yes, research proves we spend less time with the printed page. Books and newspapers, especially. But here is where the generalization rings false: Many people (perhaps you) are actually reading MORE than before. While the web has changed what we read and how we read it, for many, it has also increased our appetite for information. And, with it, the amount of time we spend reading. (If I’m not mistaken, you’re reading this right now.)

A plea for reality: Marketers, it is time to stop generalizing that ‘people don’t read,’ and begin understanding that more people ‘do’ than ‘don’t.’ This is not meant to endorse our growing literature-averse population, nor defend an appalling drop in grammatical standards. It is simply to say that well-written words are still a powerful weapon and that there is still (and in some cases, a growing) audience for their readership. Of course, it helps if you actually have something to say.

Remember: people don’t read what’s in front of them; people read what interests them. The basic principles of context and relevance still apply as new trends emerge: Every post, text and ‘tweet’ simply give us the ability to be more immediate and more intimate.

Businesses take note: Not only do people still read, in many cases, they read more. Social media in all its forms have given new relevance to the written word. One could argue (and I am) that for many businesses, the written word has again become the most important marketing tool there is. If you’re still reading this, you just might agree.

While I’m working on my next post, I hope you’ll read about how Cohesion helps organizations build stronger messaging to increase consistency, lower cost and drive growth, here.

  1. Brian,
    All I can think of reading your post is this famous quote:
    “The pen is mightier than the sword”!!!
    Today, more so, what with the reading of “what interests you” (which you have rightly pointed out). It’s CONTEXT, CONTEXT AND RELEVANCE of that context that makes us, STOP, SKIM, DEVOUR the information.
    Once again, great post.

  2. Yes, there should be a clear distinction between information gathering — which we’re doing at increasingly rapid rates and in hundreds of distracting ways — and reading — as in, comprehension, assimilation, concentration, knowledge-building, idea exploration, etc. But the fact is: as compared to 30-50-75 years ago, the US is a far more emotional, less emotionally mature and less-literate-than-we-could-be population. We are sensation seekers and we make decisions based on feeling — far more than reason — largely as a result of being trained to do so by the education system, the marketing culture and the economic system both support. Vocabulary and comprehension are not surprisingly way down compared to many other nations. People in the US read what “interests” them, uh-huh. And what interests most people? Entertainment, high sensation and pulp. It’s important to know who your largest audience is and what drives them — and in the US, we’re entitled adolescents pretending to be adults. Proof? Ask the person sitting next to you what their favorite books are, and what they’re reading now. Or, if they’re familiar with any of the writings of the founders of this country. Do they or have they ever read anything by Plato, Conrad, Adam Smith, Marx, Einstein, Locke, Darwin, Freud, Aristotle, Piaget, Confucius, Twain, Whitman….? Unlikely. But they can tell you who’s hot, who’s sexy, what’s cool, what’s popular, what the slang means, what colors they like, what movies and TV shows they favor, and whether they prefer Coke or Pepsi. Ideas? C’mon. Don’t make anyone think, please, they’re too busy feeling. Like adolescents, and over 80% are stuck there or below.

  3. Paul,

    Good comments. Though I still contend that reading is reading, and that “comprehension, assimilation, concentration, knowledge-building, idea exploration, etc,” are what they each are. Again, my post was not to condone a growing lack of cultural and historic depth and understanding (I agree), but simply to keep the argument at a ‘more people do, than don’t,’ level when it comes to the act of reading — books, or no books. And since I’m currently re-reading Twain’s “Letters from the Earth,” I (and many others my age) would not appear to fall completely into your generalization.

    But, daily I witness many others who do.

    Thanks again, Paul.


  4. Brian,

    You are right. People do read! More important, the people that most of us want to reach in business read more than ever. They have to keep up with how their industry, technology or the world is changing. If you want to break through the clutter, give people something to read that is provocative, timely and has enough depth to make it worth their while. Twitter may be revolutionizing rapid information exchange, but when it points to a valuable insight or data that has value to the reader it has maximum impact.

  5. I completely agree! And I would like to add that if people aren’t reading it may have something to do with the poor standard of a lot of what is available out there to read! (Personally, I wish there was more well written and innovative literature out there!)
    You might find this ad interesting if you haven’t chanced by it already!
    It seems to me that advertising is edging towards high intensity drama and provocation and the written word may simply seem as though it takes too long to provoke a reaction (which I do not agree with at all!) But the trend seems to have gone from words to pictures, to videos and now live stunts! I wonder where it may take us next?

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