The decline and fall of TV advertising

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You must forgive me for the deliberately fatalistic headline, but I am, after all, in marketing, and I also happen to believe that it's true. However, I hasten to add that I am not at all happy about the prospect. Many of the most enjoyable times in my career have been spent working with smart, passionate advertising people on TV ads that benefited the brands for which I worked. Time spent just trying to "do good ads."

But, the times they are a-changing, and with them have come several forces that, collectively, are conspiring to spell the end of TV advertising as we know it today. Perhaps the institution of TV advertising could survive some of these forces, but not all. Sadly, as with all human endeavors, the advertising and marketing professions will probably simply adapt to the loss, evolving and shifting in new directions so rapidly that few will take the time to reminisce about the days when TV spots ruled the advertising world. Who now bemoans the disappearance of pay phones when we have multiple wireless-communication options at our fingertips that don't even require us to leave the comforts of our cars?

Unfortunately for those of us in the business, there is simply no good media alternative on the horizon to replace the TV ad. Nothing can yet rival it in terms of effectiveness. No banner ad, no embedded content, no sports sponsorship, no product placement can deliver as compelling or persuasive a selling message as a well-crafted 30-second TV ad. At the present time, most of these alternatives accomplish little more than sandwich boards did a century ago. They can certainly help build basic awareness for a brand name, but not much more than that. We've now effectively gone "back to the future" in the advertising world because technology has neutered, or soon will, many of the media that drove the industry since the sandwich board. And it's not just broadcast media that's being affected. Ask any paper-and-ink publication employee if the future looks rosy with seriously declining readership trends as more and more people get their news online or, worse, not at all.

Positive for the public

But make no mistake: The loss is purely ours to mourn as marketing and advertising professionals. The end of TV advertising will be seen as a very positive development for the viewing public. No more unwelcome intrusions as they breathlessly await the latest escapades of the "Desperate Housewives" or their successors. No more annoying interruptions during the big game.

So, as a humble client with few, if any, solutions for the problem, I submit for consideration my list of the forces contributing to the decline and fall of TV advertising:

* The incubator is empty. Back in the day, it was a constant source of pleasure to see small, regional shops regularly burst onto the national scene with exhilarating work. However, in recent years that incubator system seems to have foundered.

The prevalent use of agency search firms has to be at least partly responsible. With search firms wanting to work with established, proven agencies and with some search firms even charging fees from agencies to participate in reviews, small shops often get cut out of the competition.

Similarly, when the old Madison Avenue giants began to form mega-agencies and snap up the smaller, creative boutiques over the past fifteen years, many of the best breeding grounds for entrepreneurially minded creative talent seemed to disappear as well.

Or, maybe it's because many in the new generation of young creative talent are just giving up the ghost and moving, instead, into the world of Web site and banner ad design.

Finally, clients have become more risk-averse over the years. With the average tenure of CMOs continuing to drop, many seem to be playing it safe more than ever: using agency search firms rather than conducting reviews themselves; hiring solid, more traditional shops rather than edgier start-ups; staying squarely within the ever-broadening domain of political correctness in advertising. It all contributes to not wanting to take a chance.

We've become the victims of less-interesting advertising over time. To be sure, there are still many very talented advertising people and great advertising agencies producing marvelous work out there today, just not as many as there used to be.

* Where have all the ideas gone? Too often today ads appear that seem to have been developed almost exclusively with the goal of "breaking through the clutter"; those four little words that have probably most contributed to the diminishing importance of "selling ideas" over time.

Ironically, I don't think consumers ultimately prefer clutter-busting ads with no substance much any more either. Like bad action movies with lots of explosions but little character development, viewers of attention-getting ads with weak "selling ideas" are often left with a soulless thrill and no corresponding development of the brand-consumer relationship. When that happens, advertising's ability to hold our interest and, yes, even to captivate us, is eroded.

* Miracles do happen. Unfortunately, in advertising they happen with all too much regularity. Through the wonders of computer-generated images, or CGI, almost anything that can be imagined can now be created for the small screen in a relatively cost-effective manner. Once considered an eye-popping spectacle a scant few years ago, overuse of the technology has led to a world where the fantastic now almost goes unnoticed. We've collectively dulled viewers' senses to the point where it is now very hard to make much of the work seem interesting at all anymore.

* TiVo. No admittedly premature obituary for TV advertising would be complete without at least a brief discussion of the impact of technology. With an increasing array of cheap digital video recorder options to be had, it's now faster and easier than ever to "zip" or "zap" away TV ads. And, with an increasing menu of advertising-free downloadable video content, and an associated increase in personal DVR options (including your cellphone and iPod), there often isn't even anything to "zip" or "zap" in the first place.

So, here we are at the dawn of a new era. But before the sun completely sets on our once-reliable old friend, the TV ad, let us tip our hats to the "good old days." Let us toast the disappearing spokesman, the soon-to-be-silenced jingle and the fading tagline.

Let's do it and move on because I've got a new viral mini-site with point-roll animation to approve online.

Brad Haley ... is exec VP-marketing of CKE Restaurants’ Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurant chains.

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