If we were all sane and rational people we’d appreciate television commercials a lot more than we do. They subsidize the shows we watch. They provide us information on products we might want to buy. They occasionally entertain us. During a long show they give us a few minutes to go to the bathroom, check our email or otherwise zone out. Sometimes they exert the necessary discipline on languorous producers who, without the need to take regular breaks, would let the story-telling drag on.
Yet despite these benefits, we all generally despise commercials – or say we do. Actually, maybe we don’t hate them as much as we say we do. Nielsen research has consistently shown that viewers who play back recorded programming typically watch about half the commercials that they could fast-forward through. And if people truly loathed commercials they wouldn’t march out and buy the products being advertised. After all, advertisers spend more than $80 billion a year on TV commercials precisely because ads convince us to part with our hard-earned cash.
Like most red-blooded Americans, I have a long history of disdain for commercials. But several things happened this summer to make me question if I truly hate them deep in my heart. First, I started watching the news-parody show, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which, because it is on HBO, is commercial-free. The show is only 30-minutes long but it’s crying out for commercial breaks. The show has a lot of segments, each with their own humorous (or not) climax. You need a break after these climaxes. On most shows, the commercial provides the necessary down time to let the viewer emotionally transition to a new segment. But with no commercials, Oliver has to create his own down time, with brief pre-recorded mildly amusing bits showing different reporters all using the same phrase. This is fine, but I would actually prefer an outright commercial.
Also this summer, my father-in-law came to visit. He’s a guy who really likes the Yankees and really hates commercials, so whenever we watch those games, he insists on muting the TV when the ads are on. As far as I’m concerned, this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing (which would be to mute the Yankee announcers and play the commercials). In any event, I was surprised at how much I missed the commercials – even the local car dealership ads – and how antsy I became when there was only silence between the innings.
But the real epiphany came when I showed up early for a movie last month and happily sat through 15 minutes of big-screen commercials, which were a big upgrade from the usual assortment of on-screen quizzes, anagrams, and popcorn promotions that used to run before a movie. And even though I’d seen some of these ads on TV, they seemed so much more palatable in a movie theatre. Which leads to my theory, which I am grandiosely calling “Holmes’ Theorem”: the bigger the screen the more tolerable the commercials. An ad that’s enjoyable on a movie screen is acceptable on a TV, barely tolerable on a computer screen and outright obnoxious on a mobile device.
Even the most ardent commercial-hater has to concede there are many good ads. For my money the most recent Google and Apple ads are some of the best TV spots ever done. And is there a TV viewer with a heart so cold that he doesn’t have a soft spot for some favorite ads from childhood?
The Google and Apple ads are an example of another theory of mine: that the better the ad the less a company actually needs to advertise. I’m thinking of those old GE and IBM ads from the 80s, which were classy and brand-building at the highest macro level. They didn’t seem to be selling actual products at all.
Which leads the real problem with commercials. They suffer from a “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon. The ads we most enjoy are not necessarily the ones that are most effective at moving product off the shelves. And even the most entertaining commercials become loathsome after you’ve seen them three or four dozen times. All the good intentions and high-toned qualities we could potentially enjoy about TV advertising are eventually degraded by the intense competition for mindshare.
That’s why I say only one cheer for commercials. As a “tax” on TV viewing, they provide the necessary funding to keep television on the air, but they do so in a way that drives everyone crazy. If we would all sign a pact only to buy products from the most entertaining, truthful and life-affirming advertisers, we might get a better class of ads. But that would never happen. We have only ourselves to blame for the state of modern advertising.