Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Evolution of Advertising and Pop Culture

Note prior to publishing:  Holy cow, this ended up longer than I ever dreamed.  Feel free to skim it for exciting words (and then feel free to be vastly disappointed at the lack of exciting words or content).

I've been thinking a lot lately on how we get our TV.  We all know that TV advertising is how shows make money, how they stay on the air and pay their actors.  But as print media has declined and online media has exploded, things are changing.  So, today I write about that.

I love a good commercial, which is to say I hate 95% of the commercials on the air at any given time.  But the funny or clever ones are always a blast to see.  The problem with actually liking some commercials is that I have switched to a DVR-heavy TV watching pattern and as such I end up missing many commercials.  This is not uncommon - although broadcast media still has the highest reach of all advertising platforms, in 2012 live TV viewing decreased 2% while DVR viewing increased 8% (source).  And that number changes significantly when broken down by age group - older audiences are largely more likely to watch live TV than younger audiences.

This brought me to a panic moment.  Could we be in the beginning stages of a TV meltdown?  We saw it with newspapers, magazines, and bookstores.  Twenty years ago, nobody seriously believed we'd see such drastic changes in those industries.  Is it possible that TV is next?  Could DVR recording kill the material from which is records?

Maybe, but probably not.  Everything I have read leads me to believe that what we are seeing is an evolution in advertising, but that scheduled TV will remain largely unchanged.

I think it is natural for advertisers to look at the DVR fast-forward button as their natural nemesis.  In 2004, 75% of "large national advertisers" said that they were planning on cutting back their televised advertising as a direct result of DVR usage (source).

An amazing report (same as cited above) from Boston University disagrees on the nemesis approach.  It concludes that fast forwarding through commercials can still create "brand memory" even with a 95% reduction in frames and no audio - as long as the brand information or product is centered on the screen.  The report calls out how even though DVR fast-forwarding has a negative impact on historical advertising outcomes, making changes to the method of advertising can still return positive results.  It cites how commercials used to base brand focus (ie, putting the brand on the screen) based on movement on the screen, since it was proven to draw the consumers focus the spot of the movement.  The report suggests that simply modifying brand placement with the expectation of the commercial being forwarded through can return good results.  (Seriously, the report was very cool).

This document was published in 2008.  Surely if this was effective, it would have started to spread to advertising, right?  To find out, I watched a few commercials with the report in mind.  It's amazed me how well advertisers are putting the brand or product on the screen.  One example was a Subway ad.  The actors were talking about staying fit for Halloween, and then were magically appearing with various costume suggestions.  While the actors moved around and changed outfits, there was cup in front of them.  It was subtle - certainly the brand was never the focus - but at all times it had "SUBWAY" near the middle of the screen.  Of the other 6 commercials I watched, 3 of them had a deliberate brand presence near or at the center of the screen for the entire commercial.  1 was a car commercial, and the other two featured Samuel L. Jackson and Tina Fey.  And if you guessed that their faces were framed in the middle of the screen the whole time, you were right!  I guess they are counting on "star power" to grab your attention instead of the logo or product.

Reading that report has had an unexpected side effect:  I'm finding myself so very much more aware of branding and technique in commercials.  As I see a commercial, I'm evaluating where they are putting the brand, when they have people or objects moving about on the screen to draw my eye, and how companies are approaching their sale.  It seems perfume and cars are the most stuck in the past.

Embedding:  Big enough to be parodied

Moving away from commercials and into a different form of advertising - embedded marketing. Obviously, this has been around for a long time.  I love watching old game shows, and I always laugh as the host moves into a commercial for whatever product sponsored the show.  That was the early commercial - "brought to you by..."  As time moved on, embedded advertising became a bit more subtle and commercials took up the banner of "blatant advertising".  But they have always been a thing.

These days, embedded advertising is a big piece of the puzzle in a show making money.  With advertising rates declining, there has been a squeeze on marginal shows.  By marginal, I mean either aging shows with declining viewership or shows produced on a tight margin.  Two examples of that are Bones (declining) and Rizzoli & Isles (tight margin).  Those shows
Bones ratings in decline

I recently watched an episode of each of these shows.  And each had an example of extreme product placement.  On Bones, Booth and Brennan were driving down the road when a loud noise filled the car.  Booth asked what it was, and Brennan explained how the all-new Prius has lane assist, with warnings to keep you from wandering from your lane!  On Rizzoli & Isles, when arriving on a crime scene, Rizzoli's brother had them all get into a car (I forget which one) and toured the crime scene while featuring the smooth ride and rear-view camera.  It was hilarious.  Click here to see a great compilation of product placement.  What's funny is that while some of the placements in that video are pretty blunt, I know that there are a couple of those that I would not have noticed while watching.  The car ones in particular; when the car comes screeching to a halt immediately in front of the camera and boldly frames the car logo front and center.  Speaking of cars, the next time you are watching TV I want you to pay close attention if somebody in your favorite show is driving and they show him/her in an interior shot.  I think you might be surprised at how many times optional features of that car somehow make it into the frame or narrative.

In fact, I could use a cool, refreshing Coke right now

There's nothing with product placement/embedded advertising.  If it keeps shows I like on the air, I'm all for it.  Then I read about a company called Three Lions Entertainment (source) and other like it.  According to the sourced article, they seek to develop "specials and reality programming to push products, which tends to be easier than telling scripted showrunners to write a story about Pepsi or Justin Timberlake's new album.  The company will also create web-based content that also feature the products".  Even better, the investor behind that company is also involved in Relativity Media (movie studio), controls Soho House (private member's club primarily for those in arts and media), and has a controlling interest in Artists Group International (concert promotion).

The future of embedded advertising - a show or reality program on TV that start members of the Soho House (or their clients) while featuring a new movie by Relativity Media and playing songs from whatever AGI artist is starting their national tour.  And of course you'll know about this new TV show by it's targeted flood of web advertising.  Truly a case of the tail wagging the dog.

So, that's a bunch of stuff, and I didn't even cover a few of the things I found.  But I find all of this fascinating, the way our content is delivered.  One thing is for sure, in 10 years this will all have evolved again, and I'll be writing about how different things are again.  Or I'll be dead.  Either way.


  1. I saw that episode of Bones - with the 'embedded' Prius commercial - in the scripts now? Whoa. It is a curious thing to wonder if TV is breaking down like those other industries that we never could have guessed would. Its the evolution of product placement - like on EDTV - that could ruin it for all of us. It would be the 'tail wagging the dog'! You speak the truth! Love this post!

  2. I think that there is an industry push for alternate advertising. One of the points I never moved from my notes to the blogs was On-Demand availability of shows, and how the targeted advertising that goes along with that has potential to become more lucrative than live advertising. It's crazy fun stuff to research.

  3. Embedded marketing is nothing new, just a revival of what once was. In the 50s and 60s companies would sponsor whole TV shows and have their advertising in the show, done by the host or the actors. And it won't be DVR that kills TV. It will be the internet and content on demand. We have totally abandoned TV altogether. If we did not have to have the satellite bundled with the phone and internet we'd ditch it totally.

  4. Joyce! So true! All of the 50s and 60s were full sponsorship. And yes, on demand is the direction of all of it. If On Demand can still show up in a drop down box like my satellite and not run through the internet (the internet bandwidth in my neighborhood is maxed, so its so very spotty) - then I'll be 100% on demand too.

  5. Give it time and it will catch up ... your bandwidth that is. We love our ROKU. We have a Netflix, AmazonPrime subscription and many of the free channels like BYUtv via the ROKU that keep us in the TV really good. I just wish they would sell a subscription package for things like The Olympics, then I would never ever need network TV again. I even watch Downton Abbey from the UK online!

  6. Sadly, I rather prefer the blatant product placement in shows rather than the subtle attempts. Watch The Biggest Loser sometime. They don't even try to hide the product placement. For today's health lesson, we're teaching you how to eat out healthy, at...Subway! For today's healthy lunch that is easy to cook, use Jennie-O Ground Turkey! And goodness, go back to watch Chuck (seriously do it!) and see the Subway promotions.

    I sense a trend here. Subway is, apparently, the master of advertising.

    Also, movie title banners at the bottom of their 30 second commercials. The first one of those I saw was for the first Twilight movie. Initially I thought it made the commercial feel cheap. But guess what? I remember that there was a commercial for it, which means mindshare, which means it was the best ad ever, even if it did seem cheap.

    And as a final bonus, I leave you with the best commercial. EVAR.

  7. As an aside, not that you control the commenting section, but good grief I'm glad I remembered how the last time I posted a long, well thought out comment, the comment got eaten when it signed me in. Copy/Paste before submitting, folks!

  8. One of the other things I didn't write up was the value of live TV - how events (sports and shows with voting) create high advertising prices since they are more interesting live.

  9. Also, while early network programming was almost entirely on the sponsorship model, the advent of produced commercials was one of the first evolutions in TV advertising. Eventually it was mostly event television that had dedicated sponsors, and commercials were the thing for everything else.

    It was actually movies that gave the huge push to embedded advertising (and cigarettes in particular), and over time it bled back over to TV (I believe with cigarettes again). This has led inexorably to today, as embedded advertising and sponsored events is rising to the forefront. Everything old truly is new again!