Stop Blaming Commercials

Over the years, the TV commercial has become a favorite whipping post, under attack from TV “visionaries,” agencies and marketers sounding off in the press, or at the hands of consumer outrage on social platforms.

But the “commercial” is not the problem. In fact, the full-screen medium of TV remains the best way to communicate a brand message and story. The TV ad does not need to be reinvented, it just needs to be evolved.

Music is my analogy here: the commercial is no more a problem to TV than the song is to music.  It’s the rigidity, passivity, repetitiveness and monotony of the commercial that’s ruined it. Consider:

Frequency and ad load. Even your favorite song would become pretty annoying if you were forced to listen to it seven to 10 times a day. So why are we surprised that viewers get so pissed at commercials?   

Telling a story.  Bands release full albums instead of just one song so they can tell a story, convey an idea or an emotion. So why are we blaming the commercial when marketers run a single 30-second piece of creative for a year or more?  



Length. Just imagine if every song was required to be three minutes in length: no more, no less.  Context matters in life. There’s a time and a place to zone out to some quick hits on the way to work, versus mellowing out to that 15-minute epic Phish jam at home. Same goes for commercial length. The key is finding the consumer ad threshold that coincides with the main viewing content.  

Targeting. Ariana Grande is number one on the Billboard 100 as I write this, but hers is not my preferred music genre, so I will never want to listen to that song. The same goes for ads. You might have the best ad, but if you’re targeting the wrong audience, they’re going to hate it no matter what.

Personalization. Having a wonderful picnic outside with the kids? Probably not the best setting to blast some Rage Against the Machine. Your message is more likely to resonate when it aligns with the viewer’s life stage, mood, and other circumstances.

Engagement and immersion. Imagine music without the immersive, live experience of a concert. Similarly, if you have the best brand or ad on the planet, but don’t provide interested viewers a path for engaging, you’re missing out on all that enthusiasm (and sales). 

Transaction. Lastly, what if we couldn’t buy our favorite album easily, or there was no T-shirt to commemorate the concert? Viewers hate friction. Digital audio theft declined dramatically when it finally became easier to pay for that digital track than it was to steal it. Adding easy shopability to commercials is inevitable, too.  

So, there’s nothing wrong with the commercial, no more than there is something wrong with a song. The commercial just needs to be evolved to fit the tastes, preferences, technology and experience of today’s viewer to be relevant, effective and lasting.

9 comments about "Stop Blaming Commercials".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, January 8, 2019 at 1:19 p.m.

    Sorry, but no viewer has "tastes or preferences" for messages that can possibly compensate the rude, unwanted interruption of their viewing. Nothing spoils the mood like a spot, targeted or not. And makes each football game a marathon commitment. We have the internet to search for product information and it's trackable. Yes, such interruptions were totally warranted for a wholly anonymous audience that could not otherwise be monetized, back in the broadcast-only era. Nowadays the Netflix model makes more sense. Sure, a funny spot is amusing (thanks Geico) but most of it is irrelevant, ineffective and forgotten. 

  2. Dale Knoop from TRE, January 8, 2019 at 1:45 p.m.

    Commercials lack value of any kind. I get that your ad agency wants to tell a story and set the mood for your brand but I don't value that. Show me a commercial with true value for my time else I'm tuning out.

  3. Gerry Crozier from Crozier Media, January 8, 2019 at 2:07 p.m.

    Could not agree more, however, you are overlooking one blatant source for negatives pointed at TV and always associated with ommercials.  I refer to improper trafficking and commercial placement.  Too often we see the same spot in the same cluster and in every subsequent cluster.  Over and over and, over.  Frequency is one thing but such ad scheduling is indicative of negligence, non-existant quality control, and general lack of pride or interest in doing one's job well. In many ways, TV traffic people are as responsible for the decline in general TV perception, as anyone.  And, TV executive management, those who permit or even foster this practice as simply a part of station operations should also be held more acountable.  Truly, they must be viewed in context as the architects of their own demise.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 8, 2019 at 3:14 p.m.

    It's laughable to imagine an advertising system where each viewer is singled out and  sent specially tailored ads designed to tell them exactly what they want to hear or see and only that--as if this is even a remotely practical ongoing business scenario. It's also laughable to contemplate the world Douglas keeps describing---presumably based on what his students tell him----that nobody watches any TV commercials--- ever. When people are asked in polls about their tolerance of commercials the vast majority still say that ads are a fair price to pay for watching their favorite shows. And ad recall studies keep telling us that about 35 % of the time when an ad is shown on the screen it is recalled with about two thirds of those who watched being able to describe the message's basic sales point. How can that be, Douglas, if nobody watches any commercials---ever---as you keep claiming?

  5. John Grono from GAP Research replied, January 8, 2019 at 6:37 p.m.

    Ed, please stop clouding rancid opinions with detail and fact.

  6. Daniel Cohen from Cohen Media, January 8, 2019 at 6:55 p.m.

    Ask McD's what happens when they run commercials for $2 Quarter Pounders! 

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 8, 2019 at 8:14 p.m.

    You speak as if ads are a bad thing. They have paid your salaries for over 100 years. And the well needed breaks are great so you can do other things while watching. However, the pods getting bigger, the same ads -which are awfully pricey to make - are OTT. So either each placement become more expensive or everyone gets less money from shareholders to CEO's. Make a decision, pass it on and count on ..what ? .... And no, you don't need to see a concert to enjoy or the music and certainly don't need more crap to get rid of from the concert. 

  8. Nick Stagge from ExpertVoice replied, January 9, 2019 at 1:21 p.m.

    And yet, here we are talking about Geico... 

    The truth is, stand alone marketing tactics produce lonely results. When a marketing mix is appropriately brought together the impact is magnified. To that point, TV commercials have their place in building awareness & can drive purchase behaviors - when done effectively. 

    As the author points out, if a brand tells a compelling story (throughout multiple pieces of content) placed in front of the right audience, and technology evolves to remove friction, TV ads can be an important part of the marketers mix. To think otherwise is just silly. 

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 9, 2019 at 1:44 p.m.

    Good points, Nick. One of the basic problems---a self-imposed one---at many advertisers is that they specifically pre-test and monitor the performance of their TV commercials but "wing it", so to speak with ads rendered in other media. Hence, they think they know how TV works---often this is not the case--and they lack a gut feeling, born of past experience about how well they might communicate their message in other media.

    Also at play is the sad  fact that decisions about how much to spend in each medium---if at all---are still made mainly by arbitrary dictates, not serious reviews of possible interactions, synergies, etc and clear cut alternative media mixes.

    Put these two points together and this tells you why so many opportunities are being missed, especially today when  many more targeting and communications options are developing.

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