End of mass marketing? Not yet. Back to ad basics in TiVo world

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The headline of the lead article in the Aug. 13 New York Times Magazine was downright startling to anyone in the advertising business: "The End of the Mass Market." The deck was even more unsettling: "How new television technology could destroy advertising as we know it." The magazine cover showed a box of Kellogg's corn flakes exploding.

The gist of the article was that black box devices such as TiVo and Replay enable TV viewers to not only do their own programming of the shows that interest them but also zap right past the TV commercials.

The author, Michael Lewis, wrote that the worst news for advertisers is that 88% of the commercials seen by viewers on their black boxes went unwatched. And, he added, "if no one watches commercials, then there is no commercial television." If there's no commercial television, there's no mass market, Mr. Lewis stated.

"For the big brands, life without television is no life at all," he wrote. "Giant corporations whose sole purpose is to mass-market consumer goods exist in their current form because the television shaped the mass market. If television ceases to be mass market, the mass market largely ceases to exist. The question isn't `How does P&G sell soap?' but `How does P&G survive?' "

I don't think we'll have to take up a collection for P&G any time soon, although the king of consumer products has had its problems unrelated to the advent of TiVo. I have serious doubts most TV viewers will let TiVo decide what programs they watch, anymore than they embraced Time Warner's test of interactive television in Orlando a few years ago.

Television is a passive medium, and that's the way people like it. The only way they interact with their TV sets is to buzz through all the channels with their remote control, a pleasure TiVo would deprive them of, having already dictated what they should watch.

But even if viewers flocked to TiVo, advertisers would gain far more than they'd lose. As Mr. Lewis pointed out, today's television environment provides advertisers and agencies a very crude approximation of how many people watch what shows, and the "sweeps" period measurement system distorts that scanty information even more. Data about specific buying patterns of viewers is just about nonexistent.

TiVo and Replay would give advertisers exhaustive data about demographic and buying habits of viewers, enabling advertisers to beam viewers messages that would most appeal to them.

But that ability wouldn't destroy advertising or the mass-market; it would make them more effective by beaming more appealing ads to viewers who shared similar demographic and even psychographic characteristics. Companies such as P&G, with hundreds of products, could better match what product to advertise to what audience segment.

And P&G sees another advantage. Said Daryl Simm, the former head of media at P&G and now CEO at Omnicom Media Group: "I'm really intrigued by this notion that the viewer will be more dedicated," Mr. Simm told the Times magazine. "He'll have a higher degree of interest in what he's watching, because he has an investment -- he's gone to the trouble to capture the program. That investment is going to connect him to the viewing experience in a way that is stronger than just grazing around. Viewer loyalty has got to translate into advertising opportunities."

TV has always been a vast wasteland when it comes to understanding how programming affects advertising. Are viewers more involved and influenced by commercials in shows they go out of their way to watch? Or are they impatient with the commercials in such shows because they're anxious to get back to the action?

My own feeling is advertising in the TiVo world -- if there is a TiVo world -- won't succeed by merely being more entertaining. That's what the programming is supposed to do. Contrary to the opinion of most advertising people, consumers want to be sold -- but you've got to give them relevant information about the product you're trying to sell them.

If TiVo accomplishes that feat it will be truly revolutionary.

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