Zipping past ad zapping

IN THE PAST FEW weeks, I have done something that’s embarrassing for any respectable TiVo subscriber — that is, actually watched commercials.

Not all of them, mind you, but those that stood out: The Rozerem spot where an insomniac receives advice from Abraham Lincoln and a talking beaver (what lad hasn’t had that dream?), an blurb in which a baby orangutan blurts out that humans are just “animals in pants,” or a Jeep Wrangler ad in which giant apes swat at a bug that turns out to be a you-know-what.

Much of the hand-wringing about the changing TV environment stems from fear that viewers will soon have a TiVo or its digital-video-recorder equivalent in every entertainment cabinet, frantically zapping past commercials. This apprehension has accelerated pressure for product integration as well as shifting toward a pay-as-you-view model that, taken to extremes, threatens to undermine broadcasting.

Take a few steps back, though, and the sky isn’t falling as rapidly as alarmists would suggest. Yes, TiVo adds to the challenge marketers face, but ad-skipping has been a significant issue since the remote control became ubiquitous. And while media buyers have cleverly staked out the DVR threat as a negotiating issue, the technological bogeyman provides them with a too-free pass regarding their own responsibility to hook viewers by creating the kind of clever campaigns cited above.

It’s worth noting, too, that DVR penetration remains relatively low (roughly 12%), suggesting it’s far from a must-have item beyond the priciest zip codes in Manhattan and L.A.’s Westside, despite insanely bullish growth estimates.

“No matter how wonderful a media device is, there are always people who say ‘no,’ ” Knowledge Networks client services VP David C. Tice observed in an analysis last year, noting that many people feel they don’t watch enough TV to need a DVR.

One reason the ad-avoidance picture stays consistently blurry is because everyone involved has a dog in the fight, from media buyers who don’t want to pay extra for DVR viewing to network research execs who insist only modest percentages of viewers zap through ad pods. Whatever the outcome of that chess match, consumers’ aversion to commercials is hardly new. Indeed, researching this piece I stumbled across a 1992 Psychology Today article titled “Revenge of the Couch Potato,” fretting about how remote controls allowed viewers to channel-surf away from political spots for the elder George Bush.

At the same time, though, any culture that celebrates a national holiday to exult in advertising’s blessings (something called “the Super Bowl”) reminds us that marketers can still inspire some viewers to rest their thumbs during TV’s mini-masterpieces.

Top advertisers have recognized as much, refusing to sit passively by and become victims of technology, producing short films such as American Express’ “My life, my card” campaign, whose various spokespeople are frequently showcased more admirably than in their day jobs. Attention-grabbing commercials don’t always translate directly into sales, but they do generate goodwill — and occasionally free publicity, such as the Republican National Committee riff on the infamous 1964 “Daisy Girl” ad, which equates voting for Democrats with Osama bin Laden and mushroom clouds.

If that sounds wildly inflammatory, it did its job by garnering considerable news coverage — just as the most effective product commercials can prompt even that jaded eighth of us with DVRs to press the “play” button. Because while I might not purchase a sleep aid any time soon, I sure do remember that damn anthropomorphic beaver.

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