Prominent business journalist Michael Lewis makes some sire predictions in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story. Lewis proclaims that "the end of the mass market" (as well as the demise of "advertising as we know it") is upon us. He reaches that conclusion by documenting the appeal of TiVo and Replay boxes: easy-to-operate digital video recorders (DVRs) that give viewers immense control over the fare they watch. You can instruct your snazzy device to automatically record every science program on your cable or satellite system. Plus all Seinfeld reruns [[ and, by golly, any movie featuring the fine Method acting of Sen. Fred Thompson. There are also,horror of horrors, buttons on the remote control that let you skip commercials.
The Times piece is a peculiar piece of reporting for several reasons. First, Lewis makes much of how the digital devices "accumulate, in atomic detail, a record of who watched and when they watched it"; but in 8,000 words, he never gets around to explaining how these data are gathered and transferred. (Here's a hint: For the DVR to work, you have to hook it up to a phone jack.) Anyway, it's hard to see how the availability of miscroscopic data on Americans' viewing habits (as opposed to the broad-stroke and often unreliable Nielsen numbers) would inconvenience marketers and advertisers. The contrary is true, of course: the detailed information TiVo and Replay provide is the psychographic motherlode, thorougly irresistible to every market researcher on the planet.
It's also odd of the Times to dwell on "the violence about to occur in a huge industry" just because consumers have more control over what they see. This was a hot story forty years ago, when the TV clicker was introduced and couch potatoes could suddenly flip the channel or mute the sound without getting up. It surely spelled the death of advertising; only, it didn't. Scaremongers bearing "The End is Near " signs resurfaced in the late seventies, when VCRs and their fast-forward buttons became ubiquitous. Strangely, advertising thrived. Then came the proliferation of cable channels that was supposed to have destroyed the networks, followed by the Internet revolution that was sure to shatter TV's mass market. Wired ran a cover story back in 1994 ("Is Advertising Dead?") that predicted the end of commercials and the spectacular rise of "ad viruses, digimercials and memegraphics." How many TV spots did you seen last week? How many ad viruses and memegraphics? Thought so.
To be fair, Lewis, in his New York Times piece, makes a couple of valid points. DVRs are the ultimate timeshifting device, so the concept of prime time will continue to lose importance. It's also likely that the process of audience fragmentation will continue. When TiVo and Replay catch on (it may take a while: since March 1999, the companies have sold only about 100,000 units between them), that trend will accelerate.
Well, what's not to like? To target niche audiences, advertisers will need more ads than ever before. Yeah, it's a safe bet that the budgets will not keep pace, but so what? For creatives, and for audiences everywhere, that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. No more room for two-million-dollar spots that are barely kept aloft by expensive sets and high-end cinematography, all the while groping around for a clever idea or a moment of genuine mirth. You know the kind: the new Sprite spots from Burrell's (see Review, page ), or even Cliff Freeman's strangely unfunny new work for Coca-Cola.
So, is advertising dead? Not on your life.