Originally published at The Guardian on June 22, 2015
The 30-second television commercial, once a cultural touchpoint, has lost its relevance in today’s world. It’s doomed to be relegated to the dustbin of 20th-century artefacts, right up there with cassette players and dial telephones.
TV commercials had their heyday in the 1960s when people had a surplus of time, particularly in the evenings after work. There were no emails, text messages or social networks to keep up with. Work and life had distinct boundaries, and TV was limited to a handful of stations that only broadcast during certain times of day.
Commercials were a part of the TV experience, a window onto the new world of packaged goods, automobiles and airline travel. They were an efficient way to learn about these products without having to get up from the couch.
The result of all this is that TV commercials feel like relics of a simpler era, one where the entire family gathered around the TV set each night to watch a limited set of programming without the ability to pause, fast forward, rewind, check Facebook, check Twitter, look something up on the internet or send a text message. They certainly don’t feel like 2015, and statistics indicate that viewers are assiduously avoiding them.
A study last year by Arris showed that 84% of respondents wanted to fast forward through the ads they watch, while 60% of them download or record shows so they can skip commercials. Even Super Bowl ads have lost their effectiveness: a 2014 study showed that 80% of them do not increase sales for the companies running them.
The increased use of smartphones and tablets also detracts from TV commercials’ relevance. Last month, researchers found that viewers who focused just on the TV screen were able to recall 2.43 out of every three brands mentioned, while smartphone and tablet users only managed to recall 1.62 on average.
Thanks to the internet, advertising’s even losing its role as an information source: A study by Mindshare earlier this year showed that the percentage of Americans who said advertising helped them learn about products and services dropped from 52% in 2005 to 41% in 2014.
So then, what sort of brand message is appropriate today? What can a brand do to get its message across to consumers in this new media environment without giving up the massive reach that TV commercials can bring?
The answer isn’t yet clear, but one place to start is branded content or native advertising. By sponsoring programming the viewer might want to watch purely for its entertainment value, the brand message does not feel quite so onerous. The emphasis here is on entertainment and on adopting the voice of the site, or the network the programme is showing on. The brand message is not buried, but it’s not front and centre either – a compromise many marketers still struggle with. Branded content and native advertising has proven effective online, such as on Buzzfeed, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t effectively translate to TV, where viewers will actively engage with it, versus the passive experience they have with old-school TV commercials.
Another option is to come to terms with the fact that many (if not most) viewers are watching TV on their own schedules and to start treating shows like in-cinema movies. That means limiting advertising to pre-roll ads only, where it’s less likely to be perceived as annoying or interruptive since it comes on before the viewer has had a chance to become involved with the show. It can even be followed up by a page on the show’s website that has a list of “sponsors” (which sounds better than advertisers), with links that allow the viewer to have a deeper engagement with the brand, anything from downloading coupons to watching a demo to straight-up e-commerce.
TV commercials won’t disappear overnight – they’re still far too effective – and they won’t disappear for all the usual ”TV is dead, the internet is king” reasons. They’ll disappear because the modern consumer no longer has the patience to sit through a four-minute pod of eight 30-second sales pitches. As a result, their effectiveness will slowly wither away, leaving them as artefacts for historians as they study the latter half of the 20th century.