Arts & Commerce: Primal Fear

I walked into a dank and barely lit magic shop just off Bourbon Street looking for a really good curse, but the woman behind the counter refused to sell me one.

“Dem only work on people, cheri,” she said. “Can’t use ’em on personal video recorders.”

Then she fixed a baleful eye on my fashionably casual business attire and asked, “You from dat advertising convention down der riverside? You people been comin’ in here all week.”

Well, OK, the store is real, but the story is fictional.

Nevertheless, anybody who attended the American Association of Advertising Agencies annual Media Conference in New Orleans last week can relate.

There were plenty of promising new technologies and research products to examine at the conference, a bad economy to mope over and a po’boy’s worth of current media reviews totaling well over $2 billion to speculate about.

Nobody cared.

All anyone wanted to talk about in the Big Easy was the Big Scare: interactive television.

Every breakout panel was asked at least one question about it. It was buzzed about in halls, chewed over in restaurants, whispered about at every coffee break.

Our Media Agency Report, which begins on page 18, is full of much sturm und a whole lotta drang about this subject.

The reason? Except for the economy, all those other topics are merely opportunities for agencies and clients. TiVo, UltimateTV and their ominous ilk, however, are threats to advertising’s existence. Nothing makes for better conversation than the prospect of imminent death.

To be fair, I have frequently dismissed the impact of interactivity on communications. And I gleefully noted in a panel I moderated in New Orleans that only a relative handful of U.S. consumers have these time-shifting little devils right now—and most of these people appear to be either agency executives or journalists who’ve been given free systems.

But as I wandered in and out of the Crescent City’s fine establishments last week, sipping pensively on my to-go cup and sidestepping drunken college students, I realized my cynicism was misplaced.

Nobody who owns one of these things even watches commercials. Ever. Not too far off, we’re told, interactivity will be built into cable set-top boxes.

Eventually, every TV sold will incorporate the technology. Soon, we’ll all be able to watch whatever we want, whenever we want. And we’ll never again have to be exposed to all that outstanding creative work America’s agencies so regularly produce.

The ladies on French Quarter balconies during Mardi Gras aren’t as exposed as advertisers will be when that happens.

So naturally, the congregation at the New Orleans Hilton Riverside wanted to know what they could do about it. And since fear is the greatest motivator of all, any number of intriguing responses to the TiVo threat were floated.

Many of them, not surprisingly, involved putting creative messages inside programming in some way.

I can imagine where that would lead: “Tonight on The West Wing, President Bartlett declares war on indigestion, names a Tums czar.”

Or, “Tonight on Friends, Chandler threatens to break up with Monica unless she switches to Tide, now with even more stain-fighting power.”

This scenario takes the concept of intrusiveness and raises it to a whole new level. But when survival is threatened, anything goes.

As for me, I’m washing my hands of the whole dismal mess and heading back to that voodoo store.

If I can’t put a hex on PVRs, I ought to at least be able to find something that will help me get a date.