TV after Advertising (and Advertising after TV)

Next month at an annual media and marketing bluff session known as the “upfronts,” TV executives will once again try to sell thirty-second spots of their airtime to advertisers for even more ludicrous sums than last year. Amazing, all concerned are remaining remarkably sanguine in the face of growing evidence that TV ads just don’t (and maybe never did) what they’re supposed to. Unmeasurable in effect, expensive to create and broadcast, and easier than ever for viewers to avoid using DVRs like TiVo, television commercials are fast becoming an obsolete form of media. This is a good thing for both television *and* marketing.

TV may, indeed, owe its very existence to its ability to promote then-fledgling national brands to shoppers more used to buying from people they knew. Mass production required mass marketing which, in turn, needed a mass medium through which to communicate. To keep our attention, advertisers created short entertainments, like the Jack Benny Show or Howdy Doody. These shows were free to watch not so much because the airwaves were considered public space, but because the content was provided by advertisers.

The implicit contract was that in return for this free gift, we would sit through the sponsors’ ads. But the emergence of cableTV, payTV, VCR’s and, now, DVR’s, has introduced viewers to television without advertising. Whether we fast forward, delete, or simply pay for the ad-free Sopranos, we’re watching TV on our own terms. And we don’t want to go back. Television has finally become a medium in its own right. We’d rather pay for good programming – be it HBO for us or Noggin for our tots – than get commercially sponsored junk for free.

Broadcast networks can’t be expected admit that the dollars spent advertising over their airwaves are increasingly less effective – not before next month’s “upfronts,” anyway, where advertisers will be asked to pony up huge sums in advance for the privilege of being TiVo’d past during next season’s prime time schedule. But in an effort to keep their skeptical clients, many advertising agencies have jumped off the TV bandwagon in order to promote what they believe is the next wave of advertising opportunities.

That’s how we get outrageously popular, expensive, yet ultimately ineffectual alternative media campaigns such as semi-pornographic Internet spots of Paris Hilton eating a Hardee’s burger while she washes a car in her bikini, Jerry Seinfeld teaming up with Superman for online American Express ads dubbed “webisodes,” or Chevy and Converse asking Internet users to edit or upload their own ads.

Hardee’s seems to have ignored the fact that sales (against the year before) were worse while their Paris Hilton ads were running than at any other time during the year. This data didn’t stop them from revamping their whole Internet strategy around the teenage boys who furiously emailed the clip to one another. It should surprise no one that boys can be counted on to admire a half-naked Paris Hilton whether or not they ever buy a burger.

Likewise, I saw my first Amex-created Seinfeld webisode on the same day I learned that my Platinum card no longer granted me access to an airport lounge. I’ll get my Seinfeld on TV, thank you. My credit card was supposed to offer a different set of privileges. On Chevy’s website for user-edited SUV ads, the clever protest spots *against* SUV’s are, not surprisingly, getting the highest hit counts. And while Converse may be breeding the next generation of advertising executives through its more successful video uploading campaign, all this activity has nothing to do with creating or supporting a culture of sports or physical activity. They’ll end up selling a lot more Apple iMacs and Sony Handycams through this popular interactive media stunt than sneakers.

That’s because, as Marshall McLuhan taught us, the medium really is the message. TV sells TV, Paris Hilton sells Paris Hilton, and sneakers sell sneakers. TV’s liberation from advertisers shouldn’t have sent brands running to find a new unrelated medium on which to promote themselves; their panicked migration to the Internet, cell phones, or movie product placements only bespeaks a lack of faith in the selling power of the products, themselves.

These days, consumer goods are their own best media. Just as the Starbucks coffee cup and cafe experience sells more coffee than any TV or billboard advertising campaign, the shape of a automobile chassis or placement of its cupholders sells more cars than all that indistinguishable footage of cars taking turns on desert lakebeds. Great products are their own billboards, and satisfied customers (not to mention passionate employees) are their best spokespeople.

The “word of mouth” that today’s hippest marketers covet – whether they call it viral marketing or cult branding – only really happens when people actually like a product enough to share their experiences with other people. And we consumers don’t do this because we care so much about the brand we’re promoting. We do it because our recommendation earns us a certain kind of respect from our friends – our expertise is a form of “social currency.”

True enough, in a culture where most of us are looking for excuses to interact – for conversation starters at the water cooler – marketers can still make ads on the Internet or beyond that give us something to talk about. But the companies who want us talking about their products instead of the entertainments they happen to be sponsoring now have an opportunity to take a great shortcut and communicate to us directly through the quality of their products.

In this sense, the Internet is not a threat to marketers, but a boon. Interactive media, more than just offering audiences a chance to skip ads or download ad-free programs, gives its users the ability to compare products’ prices and attributes, learn about the companies making them, and even share this information with others via blogs, bulletin boards, and sites offering consumers’ ratings of products.

For those willing to invest their products with qualities worth talking about, this new form of promotional media becomes essentially free. As for TV viewers, well, they’ll learn that just like the consumers of any other product out there, you get what you pay for.