It begins in a time of greater innocence.
A few years ago, Nielsen claimed to have new technologies to monitor commercial viewership like it monitors TV shows. Why not give commercials the same kind of ratings TV shows got? And, even better: Why not give the highest-rated commercials better media prices? After all, they would help keep audiences from leaving your network. If you didn't, you were essentially driving people away from your carefully crafted bachelorette-animal-challenge programming.
We suggested this to NBC's Dick Ebersol, who promptly turned white. No doubt he was imagining having to tell some pain-reliever advertiser that it would be charged a premium to air its mind-numbing 30-second torture units.
OK. Maybe it was an unrealistic idea. But it would have put pressure on advertisers to create entertaining and welcome ads. Which, ironically enough, they're now going to have to do anyway.
Why? The Electronic Weedwhacker Age, when TiVo and Replay walk the earth, is here. These machines will rock the foundation of network advertising. In time, the number of people using them to obliterate commercials will totally erode faith in the traditional 30-second spot. For a while, the networks won't know exactly what to do about it since the network model is predicated on "involuntary advertising," as San Francisco advertising philosopher Howard Gossage called it. Even with remote controls, mute buttons and TiVos, advertisers still believe a critical mass of their ads are getting through to you. That belief gets a lot of checks signed. Soon, it will be replaced by a new advertising that people actually want to see.
The involuntary advertising model meant clients could afford not to care whether people liked their advertising, as long as it worked. Thus all those spots annoyingly repeating inane phrases or using bad music. The smart ones making ads know they work better when welcome. After a while, thankfully, they'll be the only ones left. It's likely certain companies will do advertising that's so interesting people will want their TiVo to find it. You think this is crazy? This year, for the first time ever, a Reebok Super Bowl commercial ("Terry Tate") drew more TiVo viewings than any other segment of the game.
Expect tune-in ads for TV commercials. Or ads in newspapers calling attention to magazine ads. But these devices will only work if the ads are great, eschewing stultifying repetition or annoying mnemonic tactics. They will have to be voluntary destinations, as all companies will suddenly be in the entertainment business-embracing the idea that they are not just carmakers or airlines.
In my experience, this change will be a hard one for a lot of people. There is an inherent distrust of the entertaining side of advertising, as if it were somehow superfluous or insubstantial. These people will not succeed in the new voluntary media world. As our attention spans wane, and with remotes and computer mice that allow us to leave boring environments in a click, companies that don't entertain will simply not be heard.
And it won't be enough to do just product placement. The product-placement craze will shortly overstay its welcome. There is a limit to how much of it consumers will tolerate. No doubt we'll overstep those bounds very soon in our quivering longing to imbue every TV and cinematic moment with dozens of logo impressions. But in time, people will chafe under the load because in the end placements are involuntary, first level, old school mechanisms.
the new networks
Although BMW Films, for instance, are well done and currently stand as a destination for so many, they are based on the same model used in old radio shows, in which Jack Benny would suddenly tell us how great his toothpaste was. A product is embedded in a thing we allegedly want to see. BMW's version worked because it didn't go too far with the insistent presence of its product. Others will.
Look for company Web sites to be the new networks. Rather than merely rely on product-laden films to attract an audience, TV shows and perhaps even feature films of the future will be developed to air on corporate Web sites. You'll go to Cadillac to see "The Sopranos" or to Pfizer for "ER." You'll ask, "What's on Sony tonight?"
The corporation will tell you how to find its advertising (which hopefully you will want to find in this brave new world). The place will be very entertaining, all for a simple reason. They'll know you will hold the eject button.
I, for one, would be thrilled by this scenario.
Jeff Goodby is co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. This essay was first published in the Feb. 5 edition of Advertising Age's Madison & Vine e-mail newsletter (madisonandvine.com).