Unnecessary Force

Do consumers hate TV commercials? TV executives, ad agencies, clients and media critics seem to think so. A whole mythology has been constructed around the idea that people hate advertising, that the 30-second TV spot is dead, and that only extreme measures can save advertising from the tsunami of TiVo and other ad-zapping digital video recorders.

The war with Iraq presented a perfect example of why this myth couldn’t be further from the truth. A study by WPP Group’s Lightspeed Research showed 83 percent of consumers wanted a return to regular TV programming, including commercials, after the first week of fighting. They supported seeing ads on news shows by a 2-to-1 margin, the survey said.

Scholars, critics and pundits are loathe to admit it, but TV is a big part of normal life. After 9/11, the nation turned its lonely eyes to Dave and Jay for permission to laugh again. TV shows and ads are comforting, a symbol that life as we know it continues and thrives. Survey after survey shows consumers can tolerate only 24-48 hours of “wall-to-wall” news coverage before they suffer emotional exhaustion. Advertising is as American as moms, baseball and apple pie—the first being a primary demographic segment, the latter two leading product categories.

But current thinking holds that TV advertising is outmoded and obsolete, and that digital video recorders spell doom for the industry. This reasoning simply does not hold water. In the late ’70s, the introduction of the VCR caused frantic predictions about the death of the TV spot. The 25 years since then saw the TV commercial industry through its greatest financial and creative growth. TiVo has already backpedaled from its aggressive zapping initiatives to talk turkey with marketers.

This phony crisis is being used to justify increasingly intrusive advertising techniques, such as product placement. Now, product placement has a powerful role to play in advertising, but only when it is tastefully executed and respects the consumer’s intelligence. Consumers understand that the extraneous close-up of a can of soda violates the good-faith contract audiences bring to an entertainment experience. When they log on to BMWfilms.com, they understand they are enjoying a branded message—at their discretion.

But many product placements are predicated on the false idea that people don’t want to see advertising at all and must be forced to view ads through trickery, misdirection and deception: the logo shaved onto an athlete’s head, the beer left conspicuously on the set of a sports show. These tactics only show how advertisers distrust consumers. If you don’t want to watch our TV commercial, we’re going to force you to watch it.

Now ad agencies are promoting “branded content,” dreaming up ways for clients to “own” entertainment properties, from TV shows to coffee-table books, and treating consumers as wild animals that must be trapped inside an advertising “environment.” The underlying message is one of hostility, distrust and disrespect. Good advertising assumes that consumers are receptive to messages that are intelligent, relevant and meaningful—not to mention clearly labeled. How can there be truth in advertising when the foundation of the advertising itself is untruthful?

No data exists to prove consumers hate advertising. Quite the opposite. TV ads have had more of a creative impact on movies than any other influence in the past 30 years. The magazine Lucky —pure advertising—is a huge hit, and a men’s version is on the way. Neither Bill Gates nor Steven Spielberg nor HBO can predict how TV shows and advertising will evolve in the next 20 years.

Hiding ads in content and hunting down consumers as if they were exotic prey alienates the audience advertisers are trying to serve. It is panicky at best and self-defeating at worst. We have a relationship with consumers. It is our job to produce advertising that is motivating, interesting, relevant to their lives and emotionally compelling.