It's the Ads, Stupid

MediaWorks Viewpoint: Viewers Are Avoiding Ads, not Programs. The Networks Get It. The Ad Agencies Don't.

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As I think back over the last four decades of TV advertising that I've experienced as an advertising professional, one thought predominates: A key aspect of the phenomenal power of the medium is that in the past even mediocre ads could effectively sell products and build brands.
We called this intrusiveness. Before the remote control, it took quite an effort for a viewer to get up and to flip the dial, standing around hoping for a better program alternative. Today of course the audience has a great deal more control over the ad exposure and is increasingly exercising it to zip by commercials or avoid them entirely.

The 'good' old days
If we could have back in the '60s, would we have zapped or zipped by annoying "Ring around the collar" ads from Lever Brothers' Wisk or "Iron Deficiency Anemia" spots from Geritol? You bet we would. But those ads worked then, and they spawned a template for the ad industry, an arrogant presumption that if the agency and client placed an ad, a passive audience would view it no matter how irrelevant or distracting it might be.

The medium and its underlying technology have changed dramatically over the years, but advertising has not. It seems to me that the reason for this paradox is that up to now the network sellers have not wanted to bring to the attention of the ad makers and buyers that it's the ads people are zipping by or just avoiding by migrating to other less cluttered media, not the programs.

In fact, it seems to me after this week's network upfront presentations that the networks get it. They recognize the need to focus on our collective "customers" for programs and TV ads, the viewers, their needs, wants, habits, etc. And I thought many of the program offerings -- returning and new shows -- looked quite good.

Fox moves in right direction
That's why I think that Fox's "remote-free" idea of scheduling fewer ads in some programs is brilliant -- although way short of what is needed and is to come which is prescreening of ads for suitability for airing. Why put so much effort and money into producing and airing fantastic programs only to have a 15- or 30-second ad drive the viewer to change the channel or migrate to a DVR or the internet? Makes no sense.

The ad agency industry needs to wake up to the fact that "the new media" are not going to save them from obsolescence; in fact, the new media options give people even more control over the ad exposure experience. More importantly, television in its broadcast and network forms remains the most effective marketing communications medium yet devised and since it is the driver of content for virtually all platforms will be around for many years to come.

Perhaps the ultimate result of integrating ads into programs will be that the ad creation process will be taken over by people who understand what viewers want: the networks and their production companies. Something has to replace the damage being caused to TV by the destructive dinosaurs we call ad agencies.

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