Dazed and Confused

In case you find yourself scratching your head after watching a commercial on TV, rest assured, you’re not alone. A new study reports that “three-quarters of Americans have found at least one commercial on TV confusing.” And 21 percent of us often do.

Apparently, age and education are only minimal factors. This doesn’t surprise me. Looking to the viewer to account for this commercial confusion is misguided. It’s the creators of these spots who cause the problem. Here are three reasons why:

First, there’s “the cool factor.” Commercials keep getting quicker paced, and more condensed and cryptic. They leave more to the viewer’s imagination and rely on the viewer to fill in the blanks regarding what the commercials are trying to convey.

Those who create commercials have a good reason for all this — up to a point. Speeding up the pace and revealing less of the story can make a spot more involving and therefore more emotionally impactful. The current Marshalls campaign is a prime example of successfully condensed storytelling. Marshalls’ “Never pay full price for fabulous” campaign (wherein apparel makers recount tales of woe that result in overstock scooped up by Marshalls) is a prime example of successfully condensed storytelling.

However, the more prevalent reason for increasingly cryptic, condensed and frenetic commercials is that, within the ad agency subculture, it’s regarded as smart, hip, cool. (I’d say it’s in fashion, but the phrase “in fashion” has long been out of fashion.)

Movies and TV shows are also subject to this trend. The fight and chase scenes in action films have quicker-than-ever cuts. Overall, it’s harder to make out what specific actions are going on, who’s smashing whose face in, which car is swerving wildly to avoid which oncoming truck. It apparently adds excitement to the scene to film and edit in this way. But, at some point, the audience no longer can track the action.

Within the context of a movie, the specifics of the action scene are often not critical to the story line as long as we know the outcome of all that frenzied action. But TV spots aren’t so forgiving. Thirty seconds doesn’t give you much time to tell a story clearly and compellingly enough to deliver the intended commercial message. Often, indulging in making the spot “cooler” in this manner sacrifices clarity, emotional impact, or both. But if the parties involved in creating and approving the commercial are sufficiently self-indulgent, it happens anyway.

Another reason that baffling commercials get made is that sometimes the creatives and, usually, the clients are so deeply immersed in their product and its benefits they forget that what is obvious to them may need to be explained to the audience, at least a bit. Sometimes a critical element that lets the audience in on the story may be seen by the people making the spot as too obvious and heavy-handed. In a perverse sort of twist, the motivation behind creating a too cryptic, overly compressed spot can be misguided respect for the consumer. And so the creators unwittingly err on the side of confusion.

One other trend adding to commercial confusion is that storytelling in particular, and good writing in general, seems to be waning at ad agencies. So much attention is being paid to the constantly accelerating evolution of technical/visual aspects of TV production that advertising’s storytellers — writers, art directors, editors and others — have taken their eyes off the storytelling ball. Plus, with the whole social media thing washing over us, TV commercials are forced to compete for attention within agencies, as well as with clients, as never before.