It’s Time to Beef About Substandard TV Commercials

Brian Lowry says ads need to compel viewers to watch

It's Time Beef About Substandard TV
Gary Musgrave

The Super Bowl, a national holiday celebrating America’s twin loves of football and capitalism, is a time to embrace the art of TV advertising, even when the game’s lousy.

Yet while there’s still ample romance surrounding the image of the creative ad exec, Madison Avenue has been given a free pass for its role in the gradual breakdown of TV’s traditional ecosystem.

Sure, it’s now customary to watch the Super Bowl in part to admire those little 30- and 60-second masterpieces, but advertisers are largely forgiven for their inability to conjure spots people feel compelled to watch most of the time.

The digital video recorder is about 15 years old (imagine, TiVo and ReplayTV would be teenagers), and while it took longer than some analysts anticipated, the technology has clearly rewritten the rules of viewing. Initially built around a simple formula — free entertainment, in exchange for commercials — the network TV model remains dogged by speculation about its long-term viability in an on-demand, have-it-your-way world.

With DVRs near 50% penetration in the U.S., spikes in delayed viewing continue to grow. Networks are keenly aware that zap-happy consumers can potentially gut their bottom line, and they are again lobbying for advertisers to amend the time frame counted in ad buys, by recognizing viewing over the course of a full week as opposed to the current live-plus-three-day standard.

Indeed, at a conference in November, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves suggested that even a live-plus-seven-day ratings compromise wouldn’t be enough to fully credit broadcasters for the audience they generate. “We’re pushing eventually for live-plus-30,” he said.

Not to second-guess someone with Moonves’ track record, but if people can’t be bothered to watch the ads when they view a program within a week of its premiere, it’s hard to see why they should be more pliant after a month goes by.

Viewers have become so adept at avoiding ads that sponsors have pressed to insert themselves into programming, either through more elaborate integration deals or by producing material themselves, in a throwback to TV’s early days.

A lot of this has to do with time, and the huge chunk of it TV viewers can reclaim when they zap through commercials. As those who began binge-watching favorite series soon discovered, when you treat yourself to a DVD marathon, Fox’s “24” suddenly becomes closer to a much more manageable “17.”

None of that, however, should spare advertisers from the obvious: If their commercials were consistently compelling and clever — in the way, say, Sprint’s ads with James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell reading text messages are — more people would be inclined to pause and watch them, especially at a historical time when “content” so broadly applies to anything that entertains or diverts us.

Nevertheless, advertising’s creative personnel still enjoy an undeservedly good reputation. The saving grace of “Mad Men’s” protagonist, Don Draper, is his genius in coming up with brilliant campaigns, a gift that understandably mystifies sales-oriented account executives. And while decades have passed, CBS’ new sitcom “The Crazy Ones” perpetuates the image of the zany, freewheeling creative guru (played by Robin Williams, no less), heroically spitballing ideas at a mile-a-minute pace.

Networks obviously have little incentive to point fingers at advertisers — their customers — as contributing to the perception of ad-supported TV as a dinosaur. Besides, networks are looking more robust thanks to retransmission fees, international deals and other means of getting paid directly for their product, diminishing their reliance on ads.

Admittedly, this might sound like painting with a too-broad brush, and there is clearly some terrific work done by ad agencies. Watching the Super Bowl ads, though, conveyed the sense of an industry suffering from its own form of creative stagnation — addressing an ever-more-complicated mediasphere with 20th-century tactics.

So at the risk of being called crazy, here’s a question for advertisers that should ring a bell: Where’s the beef?