How About A Golden Age of Advertising?


This year’s upfronts produced the usual amount of hand-wringing about the future of television advertising.  Oh, for the days when it was only the DVR that was going to destroy the TV business model!  Now we have to worry about digital devices, cord-averse Millenniums, unreliable online measurement systems, and other end-of-ages issues.

It fell to CBS’s David Poltrack, one of the smartest people in TV, to calm everyone down.  According to Poltrack, more people are watching TV than ever before, Millennials haven’t abandoned television in hordes, and TV advertising is more valuable than ever.

Of course it’s Poltrack’s job to make that very case so advertisers will keep coming back to TV networks, but he backed it up with data instead of anecdotes, which is how most of the rest of us develop our opinions.

Nothing he reported was particularly new.   Nielsen data have shown for years that a huge number of people still watch commercials, that only about half the people who play back DVR’d shows skip through the commercials, and that Millennials are still watching a lot of network TV.  What was great about Poltrack’s presentation was the consolidation of previously known and new data into one easy-to-digest package.

Poltrack also tried to make the case that “people like advertising.”  According to Poltrack, “They’re not craving for a world without advertising.” What audiences don’t like, he said, are “ads that aren’t relevant to them. But they enjoy ads that are relevant to them.”

Well, this is one of those assertions that’s hard to prove, no matter how many surveys you give.  Respondents may respond, but they might only be parroting back what they think they’re “supposed” to say. Or more likely they don’t really know their own minds because they simultaneously hate and love ads depending on their mood or how recently they’ve watched TV..  Probably the only way to know for sure is to hook consumers up to a brain scan for a week to see whether the pleasure-experiencing areas of the brain are stimulated by ads.

Regardless, if advertisers are mad at consumers for fast-forwarding through their commercials, here’s a suggestion: Make better ads.

People will watch ads they like.  Often multiple times. One of the reasons the Super Bowl is the highest-rated broadcast of the year is that even people who don’t like football know they will be seeing the best ads that Madison Avenue has to offer.  The post-mortem for the commercials is almost as intense as the analysis of the game itself.

Obviously the advertising world cannot sustain Super Bowl intensity all year long – or across 500 different channels, no less.  But the reason people skip commercials is that they are annoyed by so many of ads and then get in the fast-forwarding habit.  Isn’t it possible to make them less irritating?

And what’s annoying about the ads?  How about: lack of originality, repetition, unappealing or overexposed spokespeople, repetition, unrealistic situations, shouting, moronic behavior, repetition, cheesy production values (especially in local ads),  confusing messages, outdated formulas, people acting like idiots, repetition.  Then there are erectile dysfunction ads when you are trying to watch baseball with your son, or adult diaper ads when you’re watching the news with your parents.  Awkward.

Familiarity breeds contempt, which is why running ads too many times is such a turn-off.  An ad that was once charming can become odious after 20 or 30 viewings.  I know there’s a science to the number of impressions necessary to imprint a message on a viewer, but certainly there must also be research on how many impressions it takes to make viewers hate the product.

With that in mind, here’s a hint to network executives: Put the best and freshest ad at the beginning of the commercial pod. Especially the show’s first pod.  My personal experience is that if I if like the first ad, I’ll watch more of them until it finally becomes unbearable.  Then I might not watch another ad for the whole show.

I’d also like to see research into whether people who watch alone or in the company of others watch the most ads.  And whether it makes any difference whether the husband, wife or kids control the clicker.

In my home, I usually manage the remote control. It’s my wife’s job to yell if I let too many ads slip through, but I don’t know if that’s a universal condition.  I would guess that the more people watching a show, the more likely it is that someone in the room will give the remote holder a lot of grief for poor fast-forwarding skills.

It’s easy to say “make better ads,” especially when you’re not the one worrying about budgets, production schedules and making clients happy.   But if advertisers really want people to watch their ads, they should up their game.  The Golden Age of Television should be supported by a Golden Age of Advertising.

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