TV commercials audition to stay in spotlight

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Is America ready for Must-See TV spots?

This week, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers holds its annual awards show-billed as "the art and technique of the American television commercial" and widely considered a celebration of ad creativity in its purest form. Matt Miller, AICP's CEO and loquacious ringmaster of the lively festival, believes creators of TV spots need to make ads consumers will stay tuned for.

"As an advertiser, you are barging into someone's living room uninvited," Mr. Miller said. "They are there to watch the TV show. You're interrupting that, you're an uninvited guest. If you want to stay, you better be charming."

eyes are the prize

Marketers are starting to agree. As broadcast TV audiences continue to erode, advertisers continue to fret that they pay too high a price for commercial units that reach fewer eyeballs. At the Association of National Advertisers' annual TV conference in March, marketers proposed that Nielsen Media should make ratings for commercials, not programming, the standard currency for buying and selling TV spots.

Mike Shaw, president-sales and marketing at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC Television, reacted to that suggestion by throwing down the gauntlet: If advertisers want networks to get in the business of delivering commercial ratings, than they need to create ads that people want to watch.

"There must be more spots that people will want to watch," said Bill Bruce, exec VP-exec creative director at Omnicom's BBDO, New York, and the mastermind behind Mountain Dew's award-winning "Dew Dudes" campaigns, including the "Spy vs. Spy" spots now airing. "It's not the sole responsibility of the agency. The marketers have to become involved in this. They have to allow us to say things, and give us the freedom to say it in unconventional or different ways. Until that happens, there will be stuff out there that people will not tolerate."

Mr. Shaw has also said that if advertisers want commercial ratings, then the networks would have to start programming ads just as they do TV shows. "We're talking about commoditizing commercials based on the rating the commercial delivers," Mr. Shaw said during an earlier interview with Ad Age. "And we're going to get down to negotiating pods and pod positions. I don't think that's where we want to go just yet."

new ads first

John Hegarty, worldwide creative director at Publicis Groupe-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty, on the contrary, believes that this is exactly where the industry must go. "I would have different kinds of advertising for different evenings," Mr. Hegarty said. "I'd have interesting ads and new breaking ads first. I wouldn't run an ad first in break that's been on for 15 weeks and everyone's seen. If commercials are part of an evening's watching, then program them. The broadcasters must start programming advertising. They are part of an evening's entertainment."

Advertisers, Mr. Miller believes, are finally getting the message, and evidence of that is in this year's AICP show, which offers "the strongest body of work we've ever had," he said. "You'll see some of the most entertaining advertising ever, and it's not just humor." The AICP received at least as many submissions this year as it did during the last creative surge, which occurred in 2000 during the height of the dot-com era. That period generated a bonanza in creative spots from a slew of startup Internet firms. The AICP show this year will honor a total of 70 spots that will be screened at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

boredom factor

The rise of entertainment marketing, product placement and other forms of integrating brands into programming, Mr. Miller noted, proves that advertising must be entertaining in order to be effective. "This is a wake-up call," he said. "Not only should brands be integrated into the entertainment world, but in their core messages, they have to have a similar level of entertainment value."

Consumers, Mr. Hegarty said, are already avoiding boring fare. "The viewer now has control of programming through remote controls and devices like TiVo, and for advertising to succeed it has to start engaging with the consumer in a way that is interesting. ... People do not necessarily turn off advertising, they just turn off things they don't want to watch. They don't see boring films, they don't read boring books, they don't watch boring TV and they don't watch boring ads. In order to make advertising work, you've got to make it engaging."

But some believe the whole issue is moot because TV is no longer the center of the advertising world. "The opportunity today is in an incredible range of media vehicles that are much more effective than mass TV could ever be," said Ron Berger, CEO of Havas' Euro RSCG MVBMS. "We've introduced new cars for Volvo online, all-digital launches. There's a broader palette out there. I find it personally ironic that someone at ABC would actually say that if ads were better, people would stay and watch. Why don't we start at the other end? What if programming was better? Believe me, no one these days is saying the ads suck but that programming is great. No one."

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