No bull: Advertisers beef up spots

Almost daily an article, study or conference mulls the gloomy future of TV, anticipating the day when digital video recorder technology like TiVo will become widely dispersed and shatter the foundation of ad-supported, over-the-air television.

Who will sit through commercials, after all, once viewers can zap through them lickety split? Surveys already indicate the younger audience is increasingly likely to multitask while the TV is on and tune out when advertising appears — distracted by activities like eating or grazing the Internet.

Yet as I contemplate the inevitability of broadcast networks wasting away, the thought keeps recurring that TV advertising is so ingrained in the public consciousness it won’t go quietly into the night. The problem, from where I sit, is that advertisers and their agencies have become too enamored with product placement and “value-added” relationships, while failing to pull their weight creatively by making their spots more zap-proof.

In this context, my mind keeps drifting to an ad that received considerable regional play the past few months — one where a gorgeous girl rides a mechanical bull as she wolfs down a Carl’s Jr. burger.

Among other (and more obvious) things, I was fascinated by the underlying message. Eat this burger, look like this girl? Don’t think so. Eat this burger, get this girl? Really don’t think so.

Nevertheless, I found myself watching all 30 seconds — despite being a TiVo owner, the kind who starts “The West Wing” at 9:15 p.m. even when I’m home to tear through the ads and still be done in time for the “blip-bling” sound on “Law & Order.” Come to think of it, I’ve also been known to hum Coors Light’s ode to the “Wing Man” — the guy whose buddy corrals a young goddess that is “towin’ an anchor, a junior investment banker, who’s talkin’ about herself and not much more.”

As much as many of them annoy us, commercials occasionally add to the TV viewing experience. In their best moments, it’s often said, they’re more entertaining than the shows — a theory I decided to test, beyond the traditional Super Bowl hype, by watching 22 minutes of commercials (equivalent to the content of an average sitcom) on a recent Thursday during NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup.

With apologies to the folks along Madison Ave., there wasn’t much to keep my remote trigger-finger from getting itchy. Boring car commercials. A 10% extra discount at Sears. Earnest spots for Excedrin and Tylenol, and Carefree “perfect fit” panty liners.

That’s not exactly trying hard enough when you’re vying for the attention of a guy with 200 channels, is it? For the most part, ads broke down into these categories: Fast-paced but not necessarily meaningful (BMW, iPod); sexy (Victoria’s Secret, Lee Jeans); heartwarming (AT&T, JC Penney); informational (Sears, Zales), confusing celebrity usage (Lucy Liu and Liv Tyler for SBC, Fran Drescher for Old Navy?), and clever or fun.

There were plenty of movie ads too, but I didn’t find those fueling my desire to see “Love, Actually” or “Gothika,” and I would have seen “Master and Commander” even if the spot had only shown the part where Russell Crowe plays the cello.

As for the “clever or fun” group, that included a Citi Cards bit on identity theft and a Jack in the Box retro dance number. Still, you wonder how effective such commercials are, given the rift between making consumers smile and actually inspiring them to buy something. As noted, I might love that “Wing Man” ad, but I wouldn’t drink Coors Light unless stranded in the desert without any hope of reviving my camel.

Such skepticism notwithstanding, I sought out Andy Puzder, president-CEO of Carl’s parent CKE Restaurants, to both gauge the future of advertising and ascertain what girls gone rodeo have to do with moving burgers. To my surprise, despite all the hand-wringing about TV’s future as well as the sudden disappearance of young men from the Nielsen sample, his outlook can only be called bullish.

“We still get our biggest sales bump from a good ad campaign on television,” Puzder says, adding that TV continues to provide “the biggest bang for our buck.”

Puzder concedes that it’s harder to get noticed, but it can be done — citing a 6% quarterly sales increase while the “Bull” spot (the title alone displays rare truth in advertising) was in heavy rotation. It’s just one of a string of commercials, he notes, “intended to get attention and to be memorable” — including a wry double entendre featuring Hugh Hefner, who eats at Carl’s because “Some guys don’t like the same thing night after night.”

As for the target audience of men age 18 to 34, Puzder says, “If the mechanical bull [ad] doesn’t get them to look up, they’re dead.”

That’s a refreshing departure from much of the ad industry, whose reliance on integrating themselves into programming stems from a combination of fear and laziness — enamored with the idea of having “Survivor” or “American Idol” contestants wear, eat or interact with their product.

Indeed, marketers are pressing to insinuate themselves ever further into content. In February, Coca-Cola Co. Chief Operating Officer Steven Heyer delivered an address in which he flatly told Hollywood that Coke, in an era of fragmentation, is no longer content to simply buy commercial time.

Rather, he said, the company’s plan is to “use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people’s hearts and minds. … Because the ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold — whether movies or music or television — are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital.”

If such cold calculation hasn’t putting a chill up the spine of consumers yet, sooner or later it will. Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group co-founded by Ralph Nader, fired one of the first salvos, recently asking the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate current TV advertising practices and require greater disclosure regarding embedded ads.

A decade or so ago, network execs wondered aloud if TV theme songs were passe, fearing viewers wouldn’t sit still for opening credits. Chart-topping hits tied to “Friends,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Party of Five” soon followed.

While new technology and an exploding number of viewing options creates very real problems, throwing in the towel on commercials seems equally premature — especially if sponsors give us cause to keep our thumbs off the fast-forward button.

So come on, advertisers. Where’s the beef?

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