In 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.