TV "looks down its nose a little bit at advertising," said Andrew Denton, a co-creator and co-executive producer of the program. "People have actually missed the point that advertising -- because it's actively trying to play us -- is actually probably the smartest industry of them all."
That's a noticeably different sentiment than the one often expressed on these shores. In the U.S., advertising programs usually show up in the form of clip shows (Time Warner's TBS will run "World's Funniest Commercials 2008" on Aug. 26), and ad executives often crop up in shows that tilt decidedly more toward entertainment than they do toward information or enlightenment.
ABC's "American Inventor" discarded all three of its marketing-industry judges after one season in 2006. At CBS, a show called "Jingles" has gone into production and is expected to focus on contestants writing and performing catchy jingles for products, food and more. Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO of the Publicis Groupe agency that bears her name, and controversial former Wal-Mart executive Julie Roehm are slated to judge -- along with Kiss frontman Gene Simmons. Marketing executives from PepsiCo turned up during one season of NBC's "The Apprentice," and agency honcho Donny Deutsch hosts "The Big Picture" on CNBC, which over the years has veered wildly in its focus, concentrating on attractive actresses and models one year and entrepreneurs the next.
Wrestling ads 'to the ground'
In Australia, meanwhile, "Gruen" is produced by a more erudite kind of TV executive. Mr. Denton has won some recognition for producing documentaries and specials, as well as "Enough Rope," an in-depth interview program. "No one has ever really wrestled advertising to the ground, and it is the sort of thing that sort of permeates every minute of our waking lives," said Amanda Duthie, head of arts, entertainment and comedy for ABC. "We knew [Denton's] approach would be irreverent and also steeped in the desire to want to know more. It wasn't going to be a flip show. It was going to be rigorous."
"The Gruen Transfer" is named after Victor Gruen, designer of the first shopping mall. The term refers to "that split second when the mall's intentionally confusing layout makes our eyes glaze and our jaws slacken ... the moment when we forget what we came for and become impulse buyers," according to the program's website.
Mr. Denton's pitch to ABC was to utilize a fun-to-watch format, but to examine the elements in ads that influence people and spark decisions about purchasing. "I gave an example, a real-life example," he recounted. "I found myself in the supermarket, and I went to buy the cheaper dishwashing liquid, and found my hand moving over to the more expensive, because the advertising told me, 'That's the one to get.' As I wrote in the pitch document, if you can be persuaded to buy the orange dishwashing liquid when the green one is cheaper, what else can you be persuaded to do? How do you even know your thoughts are your own?"
Comedian Wil Anderson is the host who interacts with a panel of advertising executives analyzing what it is exactly that makes the ads work or flop. In one recent show, two local ad executives were called upon to devise campaigns on behalf of New Zealand -- asking travelers to avoid visiting Australia. One ad cited statistics on how many tourists were killed each year Down Under.
The show is also not afraid to reveal some of the industry's tricks. In one recent episode, the show discovered that Australian TV-show host Kim Watkins, shown in a Cheerios ad eating breakfast with her family, was actually sharing the morning meal with actors.
One panelist was initially leery of appearing on the program. At first, Todd Samson thought "Gruen" was going to be "a send-up of the industry." Now, the CEO of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett in Sydney is excited that conversations on the show can range from the marketing of tampons to startling extrapolations of ads from around the world. Most people, he said, "are surrounded by advertising, but don't think about it that much, and this show helps people think in a way that's funny and interesting."
"Gruen" completed its initial 10-episode run July 30, but had some ratings success. Its last episode reached about 1.46 million viewers, making it one of the higher-rated programs on ABC this year. "Gruen" has "been commissioned" for a second season, said Mr. Denton, who would like to explore the idea of selling the format to broadcasters in other countries. "It would suit an edgy public broadcaster or a risk-taking private broadcaster," he said.
Duplicating this program in other countries may not be so easy. "One of the reasons why it was attractive was because of the amount of consideration that was put into the show," said Russel Howcroft, chairman of George Patterson Y&R, another "Gruen" panelist.