Reality Bites

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ABC plans a new fall TV show that promises advertisers “seamless product integration.� But consumer tolerance of marketing bombardment is wearing thin.

TV viewers more and more perceive the hand of the advertiser in what they watch, and breaking down the wall between story and commercial can wear the fabric of consumer credulity even thinner.

A new fall CBS show called The Agency will dramatize the adventures of intrepid and virtuous operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency. This may give you an idea of how abjectly stupid the networks take us to be.

The arbiters of our culture often assume that Americans, as denizens of the empire of consumerism, are simply predisposed to their wants and needs, namely selling more stuff. And, if such is not the case, they can simply turn to the unmatched coercive tool of mass media to change our minds. How else to explain the stunning growth of the branded, bottled water business in the past decade, despite studies that indicate that, though a thousand times as costly, it offers no more purity or health benefits than most tap water? The brand is king, they tell us again and again, and Americans love them and just want more. How else, indeed, to explain the upcoming ABC “reality TV� series The Runner, promising unprecedented “seamless product integration� within the show?

Marketing and media largely occur in imagination-free zones, dictated by formula and facsimile. The success of CBS's Survivor and ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? last year, sent networks into rabid me-tooism as they tried to put marginally different spins on the formula of real people supposedly reacting spontaneously to competitive, pressure situations. In the ensuing months, we've been set upon by hype for CBS's Big Brother and Survivor II, NBC's Weakest Link, UPN's Chains of Love, ABC's The Mole, and FOX's Temptation Island and Boot Camp (for which one episode promo promised one “recruit� would pay “the ultimate price� — if he did, in fact, die, we missed it). John Langley Productions, producer of Cops, was even said to be making a “reality TV� movie in which a cast of “real� people is stalked by a presumably role-playing psycho.

The allure here is simple: These shows are sort of sports with crossover appeal. Reality TV combines the “live� qualities of the Game of the Week — spontaneous actions, uncertain outcomes — with the voyeurism of The Jerry Springer Show, and the hackneyed, ongoing narrative of a soap opera. The combination draws the rare broad swath of numbers in the 18- to 49-year-old range. And like sports, the shows' overt, competitive set-up offers the network “value-added� sales opportunities. AT&T integrated its ad buy on Millionaire with on-air tags on “lifeline� calls. Survivor offered in-show product or ad placement with every media buy, its participants shod in Reebok sneakers, for example, and competing to win a Pontiac Aztek SUV. The Runner, scheduled to debut this fall, seems only to ride the Zeitgeist to the next level.

The show will feature a title player roaming the country, performing tasks that will likely involve advertisers' products or services, and accumulating prize money as he goes. Viewers can track him at a Web site, and if they catch him, can snare the money or prizes for themselves. Since the show will air on a network owned by Disney, we can expect the runner to dine at McDonald's — Disney's promotional partner for the past 10 years. And as he will be at large in America, not some remote jungle, nearly every other endeavor he undertakes has the potential for an advertiser tie-in.

ABC's prime-time publicity department told American Demographics it had no information as yet on The Runner. But the network's sales chief, Mike Shaw, earlier told the AP, “We're not going to commercialize the hell out of the show. It's a television show, first and foremost.�

But herein lies the rub. A television show “first and foremost� is an evolving thing. Standard ad sponsorship of programming is becoming a problematic model for those who depend on it. Networks continue to struggle with the zap habits of ad-wary consumers, whose circumvention powers grow as digital recording products like TiVo proliferate. Beyond VCR fast-forwarding, the number of viewers who switch channels at commercial breaks has roughly tripled to 36 percent since 1985, as has the number of viewers who mute the sound during “words from our sponsors,� to 23 percent, according to Roper Starch Worldwide.

Such viewing habits have media sellers and advertisers scrambling to get their messages in front of consumers less empowered to circumvent them. A GAO report last year drew some hard critical attention to marketers targeting school children. Aside from obvious cases of glowing pop machines in hallways and the ad-supported Channel One, now in 25 percent of middle and high schools, the report cited ZapMe, a firm that supplied free computers that flash banner ads continuously, collects consumer data on students, and feeds it back to its advertisers. Even beyond the hot button of commercialized schools, ads now pop up in streaming news feeds in office-building elevators, check-out separator sticks in supermarkets, and even on coffee cups. And in the ad bastion of commercial TV, many are looking to embedded brand and product placement, or “seamless integration,� as an ad sales wave of the future.

But what's good for the goose doesn't necessarily scream “win-win,� to use network exec parlance. Consumers, in systematic pattern, are showing an unmistakable “wear-thin� factor to the marketing bombardment. According to Roper Starch, those finding it “quite acceptable� to see ads on shopping carts have declined 9 percentage points since 1996, to 32 percent, while their general tolerance has declined 11 points, to 31 percent, regarding pre-movie ads, and 8 points for in-flight programs, to 18 percent. Seventy-six percent of consumers feel advertising is “shown in far too many places now, you can't get away from it,� up 10 points from 1998. Some 64 percent characterize advertising as a “nuisance� that “clutters up� TV, up 5 points since 1998, while 7 percent more think the same of magazine and online advertising. Meanwhile, those who feel advertising “provides useful information� have declined 5 points since 1998, to 74 percent, while those who find it “often fun and interesting� dropped 5 points to 65 percent.

Even ZapMe, now operating under the name rStar, has curtailed its in-school business focus, citing public blacklash against its methods.

“There's a much greater perception that we're in a ‘marketing culture’ today,� says Jon Berry, vice president at Roper Starch. “Our focus group people play back some of the responses they get and people are talking in marketing terms the way past generations used sports or war terms…It's a reflection of longer-term factors, like education. A high school degree, which was not a common thing in 1960, is universal today. Half of Americans have been to college. With education comes greater self-confidence, and as people get more confident, they get more skeptical, more restless about being dictated to. While that has a benefit to people, as educated consumers who can shop around and get better prices, it can also make marketing a more invasive thing in their minds.�

Thus, a cycle is created. The wary consumer requires more wile on the marketer's part, and that wile, if recognized as such, further inures the consumer. TV viewers more and more perceive the hand of the advertiser in what they watch, and breaking down the wall between story and commercial can wear the fabric of consumer credulity even thinner. The Runner's proposed “seamless integration� is one thing, but increasingly, corporate executives seem oblivious to consumers' capacity to perceive the seams.

To wit, 82 percent of consumers see “entertainment and popular culture…dominated by corporate money, which seeks mass appeal over quality,� according to a BusinessWeek/Harris poll conducted last year. And a whopping 74 percent of Americans gave the business community “only fair� or “poor� marks when it comes to “being straightforward and honest in their dealings with consumers and employees.�

The BusinessWeek article that accompanied the poll results warned of a growing citizen predisposition against the corporate community. The Roper Starch numbers above reveal that such antipathy is manifest toward companies' brands and practices on a mass-market level, not merely the narrow province of overprotective parents or progressive protesters in Seattle or Quebec. Bottled water aside, they increasingly demonstrate a level of incredulity that does not bode remotely well for those trying to sell them stuff, however “integrated� their pitch.

The author should disclose that he doesn't understand the lure of such artless pabulum as Survivor or Millionaire, which is to fully allow that The Runner could become a big hit. We can, however, posit that ABC, in simply flogging the latest hot buttons of marketing and media, risks further exposing itself as a mere gossamer conduit of ever more discordant corporate propaganda.

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