By Published on .

Ten minutes of TV, consisting of two minutes of programming and eight minutes of commercial messages. That's the record set in the season finale of ABC's hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, as recently reported in Advertising Age. The network knew it stood to lose points if viewers grew tired of the cavalcade of come-ons, but the gamble paid off: the show got its highest Nielsen ratings ever as more than twenty million viewers stayed tuned to see, in those final two minutes, which contestant would make off with the lucre.

If I'd been watching that night, I wouldn't have switched the channel before those final moments either -- but I would have felt that ABC put one over on me. To ABC, I'm just an ad receptacle. They probably won't even respect me in the morning.

Media across the board are now more ad-laden than ever. There are also new advertising media that used to be just things; in recent years, ads have appeared in bathroom stalls, in golf holes (talk about Hidden Persuaders!), and imprinted on the sand of our beaches. A lot of this has to do with fear: the fear, on the part of advertisers, of being ignored, of being unable to break through the dreaded clutter. And this is where the ad world, in a frenzy of mounting panic, bites itself on the booty. To fight clutter, it creates more. To get people to pay attention, it's yelling harder, to drown out the other guys who are doing the same thing.

Newsflash: It won't work.

Networks, in particular, have started to butcher the goose that lays the golden eggs. By continuing to decrease the number of actual programming minutes to make room for more messages from 'sponsors,' TV execs are sure cooking up an exquisite foie gras for themselves today. But what about tomorrow? Americans have lived under an uneasy truce with Madison Avenue for decades, embracing the many pop-cultural and entertainment aspects of advertising while still professing not to really like the stuff. Based on what I see and hear around me, from people who don't work in advertising, I sense that this delicate balance is about to shift -- that there's a backlash brewing against an industry that shows about as much self-control as Fatty Arbuckle at a junior prom.

"Do network TV executives ever watch their own shows?" an incredulous Paul Kemp-Robertson asked me recently. He is Leo Burnett's director of creative resources and a displaced Brit -- and while he's naturally a fan of advertising, he hasn't gotten used to what he sees as U.S. networks' disrespect to viewers. "In Britain, ad breaks can feel intrusive, but at least there's some restraint," Kemp-Robertson says. "There are fewer commercials per hour, and they are placed more sympathetically around the shows. In America, [spots] are so frequent they feel like mosquitos biting your face while you're trying to drive."

Maybe the solution for U.S. advertisers lies in studying the European model, where ambient advertising, in particular, is more like a game, Kemp-Robertson believes, with "a sense of mutual consent between the brand and the consumer." Or maybe we should start talking more seriously about forms of 'permission marketing,' as advocated by Seth Godin et al.

Blindly unleashing ever bigger avalanches of paid messages on consumers is an exercise in futility -- a point nicely made in the following unattributed joke, which I received by e-mail the other day: "Can you believe how many award shows they have now? They have awards for commercials. The Clio awards, a whole show full of commercials. I taped it and then fast-forwarded through the whole thing."

We love to hear from you. Send comments to [email protected], or fax

Most Popular