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Advertising

brady-foot-locker-commercialI recently realized that although I never watch live TV and aggressively fast-forward through commercials, I am still surprisingly familiar with a lot of ads: the Tom Brady Foot Locker ad; The Amy Schumer Old Navy commercial; the Ariana Grande T-Mobile spot.  I know about Flo from Progressive, the GEICO lizard and the Toyotathon. How do I know about them if I never watch commercials?

The media would have us believe that no one watches ads. But obviously someone sees a lot of them.  Nielsen’s C3 rating is a measure of ad viewing and even with competition from smartphones and whatnot, those aggregate ratings are remarkably high.  Those of us who “never” watch commercials think it must be all those other dumbbells out there who engage in the retrograde practice of ad watching

Or is it?  How many of us are deluding ourselves?

Speaking for myself, if pressed, I would concede that, yes, I actually do watch some (ok maybe more than some) live TV through sports and news shows.  And even if you only watch one football game a week you are still exposed to a ton of ads.

Scripted programming is also a surprising source of ad viewing, even for those who give their DVR a good workout because people aren’t as disciplined as they think about fast-forwarding through ads.

Ever since Nielsen began measuring commercial viewing it has been a rule of thumb that only about half of viewers fast-forward through commercials. But if everyone believes they’re the ones who zip through the ads there’s going to be a good deal of self-deception.

The reality of those Nielsen numbers is that among DVR users, some skip all ads, some don’t bother to fast-forward at all, and a great many skip some ads but watch others depending on their mood, energy level, or affinity for the ad.

At my house, what usually happens when we’re watching a DVR’d show is that when the commercial pod comes on I’ll watch the first 15 or 20 seconds in a stupor before my wife yells that we’re watching a commercial for cripes sake.  I’ll fast forward, usually stopping half-way through the pod because I think the show is finally coming on, only to discover that what I thought was the resumption of the show was actually another ad.  So after watching another 15 seconds of ads, I’ll continue my fast-forwarding, and land about a minute into the show. Then I’ll have to rewind, arriving this time about a half-minute back into the middle of the commercials. Commercial avoidance is a lot of work.

Am I the only one who thinks the precision of the DVR fast-forward function has degraded over time?  When we had our first DVR I used to be able to zoom through the commercials and land precisely at the second when the show started up again.  Now I can end up half a minute ahead or half a minute behind the resumption of the show because the technology has become so imprecise.  In other words, I watch a lot more ads than I realize because I usually give up trying to avoid them.

The other reason I watch recorded commercials is that sometimes they are so good I actually want to watch them.  The new Amazon ad about the priest and the imam sending each other knee pads for praying is something I’ll always watch it to the end whenever it’s on.  Same with the iPhone 7 ad with balloons floating throughout the city accompanied by a beautiful cover version of “I will follow you.” In fact it’s a huge irony that the best TV ads are now being produced by the same high tech companies (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) that have done so much to undermine the television business model.  They, at least, seem to recognize the power of television advertising.

And speaking of digital media, one place I do not enjoy seeing ads is online.  A two-minute commercial pod during a streaming TV show seems so much longer than a two-minute ad on TV.  When you’re watching an ad on TV you can get up and walk into the kitchen for a glass of water or go to the bathroom, but when you’re watching an online commercial you feel compelled to sit in front of your PC or to hold your smartphone in your hand doing a slow burn until the show resumes.

In 1984, the most memorable moment during the Democratic primaries occurred when Walter Mondale confronted Gary Hart during a debate and said that his policies reminded him of the woman in the Wendy’s commercial who asked “Where’s the beef?” It was a devastating put-down because Hart’s proposals seemed Utopian and lacking specifics.  And it was particularly damaging because everyone understood the reference to the ad.

In 2016, there was no similar advertising reference that any politician could cite to undermine a rival because TV ads no longer offer a common cultural connection.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch a lot of ads.  In fact, when I’m fast-forwarding through the commercial pod I almost always recognize ads that I’ve already seen dozens of times.  There are more ads than ever before and even the biggest snob who claims never to watch commercials is kidding himself.

 

 

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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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Last Saturday, I went out to the driveway, picked up my home-delivered copy of The New York Times, removed half an inch of inserts and catalogues, and deposited them in the recycling bin before I even returned to the house. I felt slightly bad about all those advertisers who’d paid the Times for access to my mind space, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of sorting through all that paper on the off chance that I might find a useful $5 coupon.

Several hours later, I drove to our local mall. When an ad came on the car radio, I hit the change button and switched to a different channel.

Later that afternoon I watched a YouTube video with an ad that counted down the seconds to the moment when I could proceed directly to the Web site. At the very instant the countdown reached zero, I clicked on the “proceed to your content” link and got out of that ad.

In other words, modern life is turning into one long attempt at commercial avoidance.  And no wonder, since the prevalence of ad-supported media is increasing — while the ability of advertisers to develop interesting ads is not.

A lot of the discussion about commercial avoidance tends to focus on television — but it’s a lot worse in other media (and here I’m going to speak anecdotally rather than rely on self-reported studies that may or may not be accurate).

I can’t remember the last time I noticed a newspaper or Web site banner ad.  Occasionally I’ll notice a magazine placement with a particularly unlikely celebrity endorser (like Tom Brady and that watch), but usually I just page through to the next article.  On podcasts, I fast-forward through the commercial endorsements if they’re more than 15 seconds long.

Meanwhile, the online world, the supposed medium of the future, has turned into one long game of digital whack-a-mole.  You’ll be reading an article and an ad will suddenly pop up.  How fast do you click that off?  Pretty fast. Or you’re trying to click through to content you actually want to see, but  the cursor lingers too long on a particular part of the page, which results in another pop-up that you’ll immediately click off.  In all cases, the website will get credit for delivering an ad view even though you only looked at it long enough to find the “X” that will get out of it. And yet The New York Times reports that digital ad spending is expected to surpass TV advertising soon.

Sometimes, of course, online ad avoidance is impossible. Several months ago I purchased razor blades from Harrys.com.  The blades are fine, and I will buy some more when I run out of that supply. But Harrys.com can’t wait that long.  Harrys’ ads stalk me everywhere I go online. I understand the concept of online targeting but am not impressed that the collective power of Facebook, Google, Twitter, the Drudge Report, and Slate.com have teamed up to harass me about a product I’ll buy when I’m good and ready.

Television, which was once thought to be the most vulnerable to commercial avoidance, has actually survived the best. In the old days, commercial avoidance was called “going to the bathroom,” but today it’s called “timeshifting.” There was a time when the television industry clutched its chest in collective fear at the introduction of TiVo. Then it turned out that viewers were not as fast on the trigger finger as everyone thought they’d be. We all swear that we fast-forward through all the commercials all the time, but Nielsen’s numbers have consistently shown that someone out there is watching recorded commercials, particularly in playback that happens on the same day the show is recorded. (This is classic example of why you can’t ASK people what they do — you have to SEE what they do.)

The current fear is that viewing will transfer from the traditional television to a mobile device.  If that were to happen, it would probably spell the end of ad-supported video content, because people cannot stand to sit through a lot of commercial video on smartphones and tablets.

There is no way the enormous cost of producing scripted television could be borne by the handful of ads that can appear in a show that is primarily played back on a smartphone.  (I have a theory, supported by no research other than my anecdotal personal experience, that the bigger the screen, the more commercial video people can tolerate:  I can happily sit through a two-minute Coke commercial in the movie theater, but start going crazy when even a 30-second cut of that same ad appears on my iPhone.)

Fortunately, the era when most television will be shown via apps is still far in the future, despite all the media hype. Nielsen’s recent Comparable Metrics Report shows that the average American still only watches 16 minutes of video per week on a smartphone. This compares to more than 32 hours of regular television per week.  And according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report, the vast majority of TV viewing is live. That’s a lot of TV commercials that people are failing to avoid.

The TV commercial might not last forever, but it’s taking a long time to kill.  The Internet has been around since the 1990s, TiVo was introduced in 1999, the iPhone debuted in 2007 — and yet still we watch a lot of TV commercials.  Like every other Baby Boomer, I’ve spent my entire life trying to avoid them — but I just can’t.

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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.