Thursday, February 28, 2008

TV advertisers choosing whether to captivate audiences, or just hold them captive

TV advertisers face a big challenge today: even though the medium is still the best way to reach a mass audience, it's getting harder and harder to keep viewers focused on commercial content. This has led to two very different schools of thought on how to fix the problem:

  1. Find a way to "force" people to watch ads, or
  2. Improve the creative, the message, and the way ads are delivered

I'll be pretty clear about solution #1: it's a bad, bad, bad idea. Here's just a sample of what's being discussed, as reported in Monday's New York Times:

Looking to strike a blow against the proliferation of digital video recorders, the ABC network, its affiliated broadcast stations, and Cox Communications’ cable systems are establishing an on-demand video service that would allow viewers to watch ABC shows like “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” any time they choose.

The catch: It uses a new technology that disables the viewers’ ability to fast-forward through commercials.

The problem with this thinking is that it assumes viewers are doing nothing else while watching their favorite shows, with their full attention focused on the screen. More than half, however, are multitasking, and if an unsolicited ad comes on they'll just tune out and divert their attention elsewhere. You would think industry leaders would realize that there must be something wrong with content you have to force people to watch, but some don’t seem to get that.

But some, on the other hand, do. Those people are working on solution #2.

This work is harder, that's for sure. It will mean rethinking the meaning of advertising as a whole, while also improving creative execution. It will also require advertisers to get much better at targeting precisely the right audience at precisely the right time. What will this new era of TV advertising look like? No one's quite certain yet, but Tuesday's discusses a research project called "Beyond :30" that seeks to answer that very question:

Some of the tests involve video games superimposed over the ads. Others gauge how the average couch potato might react when pausing a recorded program and seeing an advertiser's logo on screen. Another effort involves news tickers -- much like those on CNBC -- that offer information while ads play.

[Murdoch University professor Duane] Varan has tested commercial lengths and placements within breaks as well as how many viewings of a commercial it might take before someone clicks in response to a TV ad's invitation. In some cases, he also is monitoring eye movement, heart rate and physiological arousal as people encounter the ads. "It's a number of studies that are starting to pile up and help us form pictures of what the future will actually look like," said Barbara Singer, Kraft's director of strategic media information.

Not everything is a hit. Some experiments reveal ad formats that turn a viewer off or have no effect, said Emma Jenkins, head of digital marketing for Procter & Gamble U.K. Others show that too many elements on screen can affect brand recall. "If you throw a consumer one ball, they'll catch it. If you throw them four or five, they'll drop them all," she said.
It's too early to say whether "Beyond :30" will help advertisers truly connect with TV viewers. But it’s almost certain to result in something better than what we usually do today—trying to hold audiences captive, that is, instead of trying to captivate them.

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