Pro Football: NOT 'The Most Effective Advertising Delivery System Ever Invented'

Earlier this week, New York Times ad columnist Stuart Elliott wrote that "professional football is probably the most effective advertising delivery system ever invented. Ratings data provide evidence ...The most-watched series in prime time during the 2011-12 television season was not a drama, a comedy or a reality show: it was ‘Sunday Night Football’ on NBC. Likewise, Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 was the most-watched program in American television history."

To which he adds: "And most people watching football are watching the games -- and the commercials -- live rather than taping and replaying them. Advertisers far prefer live viewing because so many people skip commercials during taped replays."

While it is a fool's errand to argue with Stuart -- who tracks advertising developments about as closely as anyone else in the world -- I might take issue with the notion that guys who watch pro football (and I am one of them) really pay close attention to commercials.

The problem is that while telecasts of football games run from three to four hours, there are really only about 11 or 12 minutes when the ball is in play that require our attention. The rest is filler -- from dumb-assed sideline commentary to 15 replays of a rolled ankle injury, to "insight" from the announcers -- only a portion of which adds value to the experience.  The networks also cram in as many program promos for upcoming shows as they can, and sell sponsorships for everything like "close third down plays brought to you by..." If you watch a couple of games a weekend (which the NFL now defines as Thursday through Monday night) you will see the same commercials spots over and over and over, until you swear off the offending brand in retaliation.

Make no mistake about it, Stuart -- many of us start recording the first hour or so of every game and fast-forward through commercials until we catch up to the live broadcast. If we time it just right, it will be with 2 minutes left in the game. If that isn't possible, we either mute commercials or switch over to a whole different channel (you'd be surprised how much of a movie you can see during a football game), using the picture-in-picture feature to return to the game when the ball is FINALLY snapped.

The problem is that the NFL and the networks are over-leveraging that huge audience, adding more commercials, promos and sponsor mentions every season, to the point that the games are simply unwatchable live. This is also happening during every kind of programming. Ever watch an IFC movie only to toss in the towel near the conclusion, because they increase the frequency of the commercials, figuring you won't jump ship that close to the end? I tape the network news every night, since when I watch it later in the evening, it takes only 20 minutes instead of 30, and I don't have to be reminded by the commercials that, like everyone else, I am dying of old age.

The butch Americana nature of commercials aimed at football watchers implies that we are desperate to get laid, can't wait to have another beer or junk food delivery, and have a pick-up parked in the driveway. I swear I don't know one guy who drives up steep hills with a load of timber or iron pipes (although I have seen folks haul some old furniture to the dump and let waving kids sit on lawn chairs in the flatbed for the local Memorial Day parade.)

At any rate, the NFL and the nets only have themselves to blame for chasing away perhaps the most desirable part of their audience.

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