Most irritating things in media: ‘digital’. No 2 in an occasional series

You’ll have gathered by now that I am a bit of a pedantic old bag but I have nothing against the word ‘digital’ per se. It is a perfectly lovely antonym to ‘analogue’. It is, according to a dictionary, a ‘description of data which is stored or transmitted as a sequence of discrete symbols from a finite set, most commonly this means binary data represented using electronic or electromagnetic signals’. So that’s nice and clear.

My problem is how ‘digital’ has come to be used in media and marketing. It doesn’t do the job required of it. Even worse than imprecision, it causes confusion. Earlier this year I witnessed a very senior media figure stand on a platform and tell the audience that when digital TV switchover is complete in 2012 all UK TV will be delivered via the internet. Erm…sorry, but no. More and more media are becoming digital; we now have a date for radio broadcasting to go totally digital and outdoor has lots of exciting new digital formats. Even print media are compiled digitally, for heaven’s sake.

There are plenty of other people – Nigel Walley and Ian Darby among them – who object to how ‘digital’ is being used. It is at its most absurd and meaningless when it is used as an alternative to TV. Yet we hear and read it all the time; people talking about choosing between TV and ‘digital’. How on earth did that happen at a time when digital switchover is nearly 90% complete, with many more people enjoying digital TV than have digital broadband? TV could hardly be more digital.

What people mostly mean when they say ‘digital’ is internet or web-based media. What’s wrong with using those words? You could argue that they are too broad already, given that internet media covers a vast range from search and websites, to social media, email marketing and online TV. But if you are looking for a bigger umbrella word, that can embrace every medium with a built-in return path, including mobile and gaming, then I suggest the word we should all be using is ‘interactive’ media. This is my personal choice because it’s a truly accurate differentiator between those media and more linear formats; interactivity requires very specific creative thinking and skills.

I accept that language shifts and morphs as we use it to take on new meanings and shake off others, but it still needs to make sense along the way and, anyway, technical terms don’t tend to shift their meanings as much your average word. If we can’t agree what a supposedly technical term like ‘digital’ means then it probably needs a re-think.

Flo Heiss, creative partner at Dare – an agency which has won more ‘Digital Agency of the Year’ accolades than any other – talked at one of our recent events about how he’s bored with the digital word. Dare has dropped it from their name. Do you dare drop it too?

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  • Justin Basini

    I couldn’t agree more with you Tess. But imprecise and befuddled use of language is a perennial problem in marketing. And it is getting worse as things change faster and more radically. The issue you identify is spot on with the confusion of digital as medium of construction (now ubiquitous), delivery (increasing with digital TV switchover and internet), or added value (the interactivity you talk about). The most powerful marketing integrates (again an overused and misused term) across media, delivery and approach to create something compelling for the consumer.

  • Gordon Macmillan

    Come on Tess don’t spare blushes who was this senior media genius?

  • John Gallen

    Hi Tess, I do tend to use the word digital when I mean interactive so I’ll side with you on that petition and start pinching myself when I use the words incorrectly.

  • Kate Wooding

    OK then, so what should I call ‘magic’ telly (the one that needs an additional box or dish to watch and has more channels than I know what to do with)? I accept it’s still TV, but I need to differentiate it from ‘council’ telly (just the five channels). Unless you can see my terms being taken up my senior media figures (which I’d love btw) we need to have terms that make it clear what we’re talking about. I know Digital telly isn’t delivered over the internet, and I know that in a few years, Council radio and telly won’t exist anymore, but I still want to differentiate. What do you all suggest?

  • Mike Berry

    A good point.

    “Digital” (meaning interactive) is too often lumped together as one medium, when in fact the different areas of interactive media present completely different reasons for use, methods of use, and benefits to both users and advertisers. Hopefully as the use of digital devices becomes more firmly ingrained into our culture this broad categorisation as “digital” should fall away, as “digital” becomes the norm.