Commentary

One Cheer For Commercials

If we were all sane and rational people, we’d appreciate television commercials a lot more than we do.  They subsidize the shows we watch.  They provide us information on products we might want to buy.  They occasionally entertain us.  During a long show, they give us a few minutes to go to the bathroom, check our email or otherwise zone out.  Sometimes they exert the necessary discipline on languorous producers who, without the need to take regular breaks, would let the story-telling drag on.

Yet despite these benefits, we all generally despise commercials -- or say we do.  Actually, maybe we don’t hate them as much as we say we do.  Nielsen research has consistently shown that viewers who play back recorded programming typically watch about half the commercials that they could fast-forward through.

Also, if people truly loathed commercials, they wouldn’t march out and buy the products being advertised.  After all, advertisers spend more than $80 billion a year on TV commercials precisely because ads convince us to part with our hard-earned cash.

Like most red-blooded Americans, I have a long history of disdain for commercials.  But several things happened this summer to make me question if I truly hate them deep in my heart.  First, I started watching the news-parody show, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which, because it is on HBO, is commercial-free. The show is only 30 minutes long, but it’s crying out for commercial breaks. There are a lot of segments, each with its own humorous (or not) climax, and there’s a need to break after these climaxes. On most shows, the commercial provides the necessary down time to let the viewer emotionally transition to a new segment.  But with no commercials, Oliver has to create his own down time, with brief pre-recorded, mildly amusing bits showing different reporters all using the same phrase.   This is fine, but I would actually prefer an outright commercial.

Also this summer, my father-in-law came to visit.  He’s a guy who really likes the Yankees and hates commercials, so whenever we watch those games, he insists on muting the TV when the ads are on.  As far as I’m concerned, this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing (which would be to mute the Yankee announcers and play the commercials).  In any event, I was surprised at how much I missed the commercials -- even the local car dealership ads -- and how antsy I became when there was only silence between the innings.

But the real epiphany came when I showed up early for a movie last month and happily sat through 15 minutes of big-screen commercials, which were a big upgrade from the usual assortment of on-screen quizzes, anagrams, and popcorn promotions that used to run before a movie.  And even though I’d seen some of these ads on TV, they seemed so much more palatable in a movie theater.

Which leads to my theory, which I am grandiosely calling “Holmes’ Theorem”: the bigger the screen, the more tolerable the commercials.  An ad that’s enjoyable on a movie screen is acceptable on a TV, barely tolerable on a computer screen and outright obnoxious on a mobile device.

Even the most ardent commercial-hater has to concede there are many good ads. For my money, the most recent Google and Apple ads are some of the best TV spots ever done. And is there a TV viewer with a heart so cold that he doesn’t have a soft spot for some favorite ads from childhood?

The Google and Apple ads are an example of another theory of mine: The better the ad, the less a company actually needs to advertise.  I’m thinking of those old GE and IBM ads from the ‘80s, which were classy and brand-building at the highest macro level.  They didn’t seem to be selling actual products at all.

Which leads to the real problem with commercials: They suffer from a “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon.  The ads we most enjoy are not necessarily the ones that are most effective at moving product off the shelves.  And even the most entertaining commercials become loathsome after you’ve seen them three or four dozen times.  All the good intentions and high-toned qualities we could potentially enjoy about TV advertising are eventually degraded by the intense competition for mindshare. 

That’s why I'm limiting myself to only one cheer for commercials.  As a “tax” on TV viewing, they provide the necessary funding to keep television on the air, but they do so in a way that drives everyone crazy. 

If we would all sign a pact only to buy products from the most entertaining, truthful and life-affirming advertisers, we might get a better class of ads.  But that would never happen. We have only ourselves to blame for the state of modern advertising.

8 comments about "One Cheer For Commercials".
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  1. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, September 23, 2014 at 8:08 a.m.

    This is the most intelligent assessment of the TV advertising landscape I have read in a long time. Bob Garfield, look out. You have competition.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, September 23, 2014 at 8:13 a.m.

    The pause button on your DVR functions quite well as an ad-hoc creator of a break in your shows. I am not persuaded by any of this salute to 20th century subsidization of so-called free TV. It's 2014 and time to move on.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, September 23, 2014 at 8:33 a.m.

    As we point out in our newly released special report on time spent with the media, how attentive audiences are and how many ads are they exposed to, a typical adult probably is influenced by only a handful of the ads directed at him----- only 10-15 out of over 350+ ads in the five major media make such an impression on a daily basis. Despite the "barrage" of ads we are supposedly "hit" with each day, consumers are perfectly capable of fending off or ignoring those that have no relevance, are offensive or are redundant.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 23, 2014 at 8:53 a.m.

    "We bring good things to life."

  5. Cece Forrester from tbd, September 23, 2014 at 5:09 p.m.

    My recollection is that the cinema advertising companies won't accept just any creative, It has to have high production values and I think they even suggest a special director's cut, not just using the one that airs on TV (unless you count Super Bowl).

  6. Cece Forrester from tbd, September 23, 2014 at 5:11 p.m.

    Mamma mia, that's a spicy meatball.

  7. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 25, 2014 at 2:18 p.m.

    Dear Gary, I’ve just reviewed a book on Logical Fallacies. After reviewing the 24 major logical fallacies, I have concluded that your “Commercials” Commentary is an inadvertent case study on the prevalence & dangers of logical fallacies in certain quarters of the advertising & journalism business. To help other MediaPost readers, I tried to classify your gross generalizations by logical fallacy. Frankly, it was too exhausting. Hence, I just thought I would list your mind-bogglers and let readers consult their own logic textbooks: Logical Fallacy 1 (LF1): "We have only ourselves to blame for the state of modern advertising."GH // I'm sorry, I'm not to blame, nor are my colleagues and clients. Guilt here on such a grand scale is absurd. // LF2: "Which leads to (Gary's) theory, which (he is) grandiosely calling “Holmes’ Theorem”: the bigger the screen, the more tolerable the commercials."GH // You were almost on to something valuable, expect too much of anything is simply "too much." The quality of video commercial messaging, for the most part, is independent of screen size. And screen size will never, ever, enhance lousy creative. // LF3: "The Google and Apple ads are an example of another theory of (Gary’s): The better the ad, the less a company actually needs to advertise."GH // Your theory of brand equity needs to be revised, if not replaced. If you follow the distinguished work of Professor Kevin Lane Keller at Tuck, you'd know that brand resonance is more complex than counting commercials, impressions or SKU's. // LF4: "Which leads to the real problem with commercials: They suffer from a “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon. The ads we most enjoy are not necessarily the ones that are most effective at moving product off the shelves."GH // Says who? Your commentary is laced with crucial factual assertions and not a single study or piece of data to support the gross, hasty and faulty generalizations that abound in your "How I Spent My Summer Soliloquy.” // LF5: "That’s why I'm limiting myself to only one cheer for commercials. As a “tax” on TV viewing, they provide the necessary funding to keep television on the air, but they do so in a way that drives everyone crazy. If we would all sign a pact only to buy products from the most entertaining, truthful and life-affirming advertisers, we might get a better class of ads. But that would never happen."GH // Finally, we have a Logical Fallacy that ends in a logical truth (i.e., “The Fallacy Fallacy.") In sum, as you would say Gary, -- and I quote: "If we were all sane and rational people, we’d appreciate television commercials a lot more than we do."GH // After this, one can only hope that when it comes to making the media, marketing, advertising and research decisions that matter, we resort to something better than the logical fallacy. Credits to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Onwards & upwards toward a more enlightened Fall 2014. Sincerely, Nick

  8. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 27, 2014 at 8 p.m.

    #JohnGronoIsObsessedWithNicholasSchiavone'sWriting

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