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Erase and rewind - Is TV advertising a broken model?

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Watching the ridiculously good 'Homeland' last week, I was struck by how absorbed and tense I was - transfixed as Carrie ducked and hid to avoid her pursuers in the alleyways of Beirut. The aroma of exotic spices, heat and sandy dust almost filled my nostrils. By the time she made it back to Sol's safe-house, I was only connected to the edge of the sofa by a millimetre.  In fact,  the only thing keeping me from complete emergence in the action and emotion was the spectacular frequency of the ad breaks. Fortunately, I wasn't watching in real time and could easily skip through the commercials, picking up on the story at the other side. The spell was broken, but at least I wasn't unduly inconvenienced.

So I have to wonder who was being served by those nuisance advertisements? Not me. They were an irritation, an itch to be scratched, a fly to be stomped. Nor the advertiser, because I didn't see the ads in anything more than a x32 blur. They had no chance. Not the producers of the show, as their tightly plotted and expensively shot show was less impressive thanks to the breaks. Only Channel 4 had anything to gain: the fees collected from the advertisers. There is clearly something wrong with this model.

From the day commercial television launched in the UK in 1955, viewers have been moaning about the ads. Given the choice, very few people would sit through the commercial break, but for most of the last fifty years, they didn't have the choice.

Television advertising is, by nature, disruptive. The spots are valued by the advertiser because the viewer's selection of programme is interrupted by the marketing message. Or at least it used to be. As my 'Homeland' viewing shows, it is perfectly possible to view a show without being exposed to a single advertisement. Of course, this gift first arrived with the VCR. However, those machines only allowed the recording of one channel at a time, so avoidable breaks were in a minority. The PVR (Sky plus and Freeview boxes with hard discs) has rapidly tipped that balance against the advertiser. Not only can a user now record several channels simultaneously, but 'live' telly can be paused.  If that pausing happens at the start of the ad break (cup of tea, trip to the loo), the ads are zipped through when the viewer returns.

The statistics confirm the problem. According to management consultants Deloitte, 86% of viewers watching pre-recorded television via a PVR always fast forward through the commercial breaks. When television viewers were asked whether they watched the entire advertising break when watching television live, just 13% always or almost always did.

Although television advertising spend has increased slightly in the last few years, investment in online ads now outstrips other formats. The TV spot has never been looked more unattractive to the advertiser.

Can this be fixed? Possibly. Audiences report they would be more likely to tolerate a commercial break if they were a) less frequent, b) shorter and c) carried more enjoyable ads. Unfortunately, the first two solutions would actually lower revenues for the broadcaster and the third is so subjective, it's almost impossible to deliver.

For the first time in British television, product placement is permitted in programming. As long as a fat 'P' is displayed in the opening and closing credits, the channel can include some branded goods in a show in exchange for a fee. This certainly overcomes the 'fast-forwarding' tendencies of the viewer, but the effectiveness of this device is far from proven and uptake has been somewhat modest. Don't expect all the advertising to happen within the programme any time soon.

Unsurprisingly, American television tackles the issue with brute force. The sheer volume of advertising rammed into their programming, with no indication the commercial break has started or ended, makes avoidance very tricky. Nevertheless, this tactic is actually forbidden in UK broadcasting law and would surely be rejected wholeheartedly by the British public. What works over there, doesn't necessarily work here.

I'm afraid the inconvenient truth is this: audiences now have the capability to enjoy free-to-air programming without enduring most or any of the accompanying advertising messages. And now that genie is out the bottle, there's no going back. If the broadcasters and advertisers fail to create new persuasive channels which the viewer cannot obliterate at the flick of a button, then television advertising is a busted flush.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.
www.magnusshaw.co.uk

A collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.

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