How to Train a 6 Year-Old to Hate Brands

trappedcomputerIn my last post about the “New TV”, I explained why big media is likely to get more advertising revenue from New TV than Old TV.  I also suggested, however, that ALL TV advertising is dealing with a fundamental change in the way we, as humans, perceive brands, and that this transformation is likely to make TV advertising increasingly challenging.  I’d like to spend some time explaining this very human transformation, as it affects not only TV advertising, but the entire notion of what it means to be a media company in the 21st century.

Let me start at a very low level with a basic psychological statement about humans–each of us individually and all of us collectively are on a never-ending quest to be in complete control of our surroundings.  This isn’t a very radical statement.  As humans we spend incredible energy to get people to do what we want, to own things so we can do with them what we please, and to work collectively to subdue nature to our wills.  As someone raising a 2 year old girl, it’s self-evident that this desire starts in infancy and that a lot of what it means to “grow up” is taking increasing control of our environment, as well as learning to accept the limited control each of us has (without crying uncontrollably, which apparently is the default reaction.)

So what’s this have to do with brands and their effectiveness on TV?  Well, let me start with another somewhat obvious statement that sounds rather radical when stated plainly–TV is a miracle.  For those of us who have lived with it our entire lives, this is easy to forget.  Imagine though how utterly astounding it was the first time we as humans saw moving images of real, live people broadcast instantly across the country.  It’s even bigger than this when we put it in relation to our desire to control our surroundings–for the first time we as humans could ALL be present at the most important events, the best shows, exactly where we would want to be WITHOUT affecting anyone else’s ability to be there as well.  We could all collectively have the BEST seat in the house.

So once again, what’s this have to do with brands and our relationship with them?  Well, if we want nothing more as humans than to control our surroundings and TV was (and still is) a miracle that fulfilled this desire more fully than anything before it, all we have to ask is who gave us this ultimate gift of control?  In the early days of television, this wasn’t a very hard question to answer.  TV didn’t give you the chance to even ASK who brought you the miracle, because every television show stated this EXPLICITLY–“brought to you by” American Airlines, Ivory Soap, or Lucky Strikes.

When someone is bringing you the miracle of transporting yourself to the best seat at the best shows in the world, AND they are doing it for free, it’s not really hard to understand what our relationship with these brands was like.  We were so predisposed to liking them in fact, that the brand didn’t even need to stand for anything very distinctive.  Are Gillette razors really better?–who cares they just brought me Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson competing in the 1947 World Series.  Who would shave with anything else?!

So what did innocent ole technology do to disrupt this hugely successful symbiotic relationship between TV consumers and brands?  My premise is that a number of technologies have slowly taught us to “game” the sponsorship model.  In other words, they began to train us to avoid commercials by taking specific actions.  It’s my belief that as we have trained through thousands of these interactions to become ever more sophisticated at avoiding commercials, we’ve unconsciously entered into an ever more explicit game, the objective of which is to banish our enemy–the sponsor.  Let’s take a look at specific examples of this progression.

I still remember my 6 year-old self somnambulating in my tighty-whiteys down to our living room to wake up with the TV, when to my utter amazement, a Superman cartoon appeared instead of the local news.  What strange magic was this? An hour later when my friends came to pick me up for school, I was still standing in the exact same place transfixed by the Bozo Show.  I’m sure I watched every commercial that morning in stunned silence, but my reverence didn’t last long.

Cable TV enabled me for the first time to start “flipping” when a commercial came on.  You couldn’t do this with just 3 channels that timed their commercials.  Within a matter of days, I remember walking over to the TV to flip the channel when the commercials would take too long.  Within a matter of weeks, I’d adopted the habit of lying close enough to the TV to flip the channels with my feet.  I probably laid there 4 hours a day learning to avoid sponsors.

And then, we got a new TV with a magical item I quickly learned to love–the remote control.  Think of this name in the context of what I said about our deepest human desires.  A REMOTE CONTROL?  Are you KIDDING me?  Is it any wonder men treat these things like the fists of Zeus that they are?!  Besides being remote it gave me the additional tools of typing the exact number of a channel, remembering my “flip” channel, and the ever powerful Mute button.  The Gameboy wasn’t the first hand-held game; it was the remote control and it only played one game–avoid the commercial.

The internet and its impact on the level of control I expected when consuming content is probably a little too much to go into for an already overly-long post.  Let it suffice to say that I’d basically abandoned the TV for the internet long before TV-like content became available because I was just so much more in control with the internet.  Technology came to the rescue of TV however, but in rescuing TV, it also gave me the ultimate weapon in my anti-sponsor arsenol–the DVR.

The DVR made TV great again.  Most obviously in this context, it allowed me to fast-forward through commercials.  I, as do many of you I’m sure, pride myself on my expert ability to skip commercials.  I have a natural rhythm for the commercial break and can often stop the fast-forwarding process perfectly with my eyes closed.  I know what kind of commercials certain networks show right before returning to programming that serve as a cue for me to stop.  I skoff at their pathetic attempts to show a brief 5 second promo for the show that LOOKS like the show to entice me to stop for the next commercial–I am not fooled.

Look at the sophistication of this war!  Measure and counter-measure between sponsors and me, Joe-viewer.  The thing that the networks and the sponsors don’t understand, and the entire premise of this mammoth blog post is that it doesn’t matter if the networks and sponsors ultimately win the technology battle–they still lose!  Not because they can’t force me to watch their commercials, but because I will HATE them for doing so.

I’ve been engaged in trench warfare for 30 years AGAINST sponsors and their messages.  Sponsors are now my ENEMY.  Networks can invent technology that forces my eyes to be open and facing the screen while a commercial plays before I can see the rest of my show (don’t worry–they’re working on it!).  Sure I’ll watch, but instead of making me feel good about the sponsor and their message it will make me hate both of them.

This phenomenon isn’t just about TV and the technologies I’ve talked about.  It’s about a bigger change in what it means to be human.  21st century humans are so saturated with information, that our primary survival task is to find a way to filter that information.  In fact, it is now social custom, given how precious our attention is, that any organization that ROBS us of that attention, is deserving of MORAL opprobrium.   THAT’S JUST NOT SOMETHING YOU WANT YOUR BRAND ATTACHED TO!

In my next post I’ll discuss the proposed solution to this problem and the hugely under-appreciated difference between “targeting” and “intent” that I hope SetJam can take advantage of.

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  • lessin

    really interesting post — one thing i take issue with early on "each of us individually and all of us collectively are on a never-ending quest to be in complete control of our surroundings." —

    I think that this isn't universally human, it is American, or at most western — there are plenty of cultures that take another tact.

    Personally, my quest is not to control all of my surroundings, but to intensely focus a a specific set that I have carved out as important

    • drstarcat

      I don't buy the cultural issue. It's more fundamental than that. I DO buy your personal (and to some degree society's) ability to deal with this instinct in myriad, beautiful, and often counter-intuitive ways. That's what makes us great.

      • Curtis

        I agree. You're right on the money that this is a fundamental desire. It is about freedom. Any time we get even the impression that someone is infringing on our freedom we implicitly push back. The harder the captor presses us, the harder we push back.

        Take a demure Asian field worker and put them in complete control of their surroundings for just a little while and they will never want to return.

  • Jessica

    "without crying uncontrollably, which apparently is the default reaction."

    Insight into how your morning went?

  • Marcos

    Dude, while an amusing article, I have to disagree absolutely with one of its main premises: humans are NOT on a never-ending quest to be in complete control, that quest ended with globalization and as you noted yourself: THERE IS NO VICTORY, so all such continued observations now are of stupid, displaced "little boy problems": those embarrassing (and sometimes painful) memories of urinating on oneself and the need for control thereof. It seems the "advancement" of civilization rests on this lamest of foundations and the erecting of more elaborate facades (*ahem*… BRANDS?) to avoid further shame. Seriously, how fucking lame?

    So the quest and question of control is over, it's only some lame, obstinate humans which don't seem to "get it" who are making it difficult for the rest of us to actually make a beautiful world. Please stop spreading this meme-virus.

    The only workable solution is not complete control, per se, but cooperation: reducing one's absolute freedom by 1 (and be happy with it) to ensure greater, more sustainable freedom for all. Even God had to learn to be happy with it. See (*ahem2*) the GPL, the American Constitution,… and

    • Curtis

      Um, you're a control freak in the worse sense.

      Try that brainwashing with someone who is really free; who is not afraid to die; who does not need to control others. You then will see just how poor you are.

      • Marcos

        Ha, "really free". The issue you raised is the history of civilization and the advancement of will and the "great men" who have made history. But that pursuit has reached it's apex, eventually there's no more territory to expand into and you inevitably run up against someone who isn't afraid to die AND wants to control you (wants your resources, your attention, whatever). Oh, and s/he has an atom bomb. What then?

        The only viable solution in the interconnected age is cooperation–there's no getting out of it and who the fark wants to anyway?

        But hey, maybe you'll be The Last Samurai….

  • Marcos

    Bug: the links provided in my message above need to have the trailing comma and period removed in order for the page to be found on the metagovernment wiki.

  • Langston Richardson

    Excellent post. Full of good writing and insightful and well considered analysis of addressing what's happened to advertising.

    | Twitter: Personal: @MATSNL65 / Work: @lazbro |

  • Langston Richardson

    Excellent post. Full of good writing and insightful and well considered analysis of addressing what's happened to advertising.

    | Twitter: Personal: @MATSNL65 / Work: @lazbro |

  • Doc Searls

    Good post. Some thoughts…

    First radio, then television, brought us inside from our porches and patios and main streets and public parks, and somatized us with nightly theatrical entertainment. Here was free threater. Plus news. Plus lots of other stuff. All in a glowing rectangle to which we were drawn as moths to a streetlight. It was nice enough while it lasted, but it's croaking now, for all the reasons you give, plus many more, all sad and annoying.

    It's worth remembering that "branding" is a term borrowed by Procter & Gamble from the cattle industry. Back early in the Depression it was P&G that best understood the power of advertising and media to mold desires and tastes. It was P&G that knew how to fight shelf wars at grocery stores by (as they used to say) "putting one kind of soap in eight different boxes and singing about the difference."

    In recent years "branding" has acquired far more cachet than it ever deserved. Companies are no longer companies. They are "brands." The problem with the whole concept is that it presumes we're all still cattle. Well, to be impolite, fuck that.

    Thanks to the Internet, and each other, and other healthy human appetites, such as for knowledge and engaged human company, TV increasingly looks like a drug that's wearing off. All attempts by its creators and distributors to keep locking us in and forcing us to watch advertising are bound to fail. I don't even bother with Hulu because I don't want to sit through ads that are — even on shows I like — irrelevant to me. The old dial is also a usage-hostile mess. And "HD" TV isn't. All the video is so compressed and full of artifacts that old-fashioned analog TV actually looks better. NTSC on an old Trinitron is much kinder to the eyes than HD of a baseball field turned plaid with green blotches, and every line fringed in jaggies.

    The game isn't over, but the outcome is getting clearer by the day. That's why the fans are leaving the park. Soon only the drunks will still be around.

    • drstarcat

      Thanks Doc. It's always nice to have a comment that's as (if not more) informative than the original post!

  • fred wilson

    my partner brad has a post that will go up on the usv blog today or tomorrow that talks about the attention economy that addresses some of this.

    your argument makes sense to me, but honestly i have not seen this "anti sponsor" attitude develop in my kids who are teenagers

  • Jessica

    "without crying uncontrollably, which apparently is the default reaction."

    Insight into how your morning went?

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    This is relevant for me as I have a six year old daughter. We have been trying to limit her TV exposure but these tips help.