04
Sep

Stay Tuned for a Fine-Tuned Word from Our Sponsor

As viewers wrest control of content away from the networks, advertisers are looking at bold new ways to bring advertising to them

By Steve Penhollow

“The living room is changing,” begins a study on the future of TV advertising from the brand experience agency Phenomblue. “Tomorrow’s living room will be more connected than ever, with entire walls becoming screens and augmented reality experiences scaring our pets. Smart furniture will merge form with function to offer touch-responsive physical and digital experiences.”

Predicting what the technological, recreational, architectural and decorative future will look like is tricky. Even visionaries like Thomas Edison, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov made mistakes.

“It’s important for brands to tell really compelling stories that connect to the audience and drive with great storytelling,” Big Fuel’s Avi Savar said.

Edison once predicted that everything in the house of 2011, including the baby’s cradle, would be made of steel. And Clarke predicted that the house of 2001 would be free of water pipes and powerlines.

Asimov predicted that earthbound automobiles would be replaced by hovercraft, and countless pundits, moguls and creatives of the 20th century declared that there would “soon” be an airplane or a helicopter in every garage.

About the only thing most predictions regarding how people will live in the future dependably guarantee is that people in the future will have a good laugh over them.

One hundred and twenty-eight years after Karl Benz produced the first automobile, garages still contain vehicles that Benz would recognize.

Eighty-seven years after Philo Farnsworth invented the television, living rooms still feature magic picture boxes that Farnsworth would recognize (and would likely loathe as much as he allegedly came to loathe his own invention).

And roughly 250 years after Lord Phillip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, commissioned the first Chesterfield sofa, he would likely take one look at the ratty things most of us sit on in our living rooms and send everyone in the immediate vicinity to the gallows.

Despite the existence of such wondrous technological innovations as tablets and smart phones, HD and 3-D, the biggest revolution in the way we consume our entertainment and information is a much quieter one. It has to do with choice.

One thing about the future that we can absolutely be sure of now is that consumers of entertainment and information will demand and receive more choice.

Vive la Revolution!

Since entertainment began to be broadcast over the radio airwaves in the 1920s, consumers wanting to enjoy a program have been at the whim of network schedules. Shows aired at certain times on certain days and were customarily never repeated. The advent of the home VCR in the ’70s and the DVR in the early 21st century gave consumers some control over when they viewed their entertainment, if not how they viewed it. Then came Netflix.

Marc Rudolph and Reed Hastings initially launched Netflix in the late ’90s as a rent-by-mail service trafficking in DVDs. Rudolph and Hastings’ service did away with the onerous late fees typically charged by brick-and-mortar video rental stores.

A decade later, it was Netflix’s streaming service that was getting all the press.

One thing about the future that we can absolutely be sure of now is that consumers of entertainment and information will demand and receive more choice.

Nowadays, Netflix is a major contender in every respect, including artistically and economically. The streaming service allows viewers to watch entire seasons of new shows — at will, in one gulp — on or through no fewer than 25 distinct devices.

Eminences at the four major broadcast networks (three of which have been parceling out their programs piecemeal since 1955) have to be wondering what the future holds. How long will viewers continue to accept the network contention that there is a season for new programs, just as there is a season for blueberries, and that fresh episodes are to be delivered only once a week, like paychecks? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, broadcast advertisers — who have for seven decades made excellent use of the “commercial break” concept invented by NBC executive Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver (you can read about Weaver in my blog post “Prick Up Your Rabbit Ears”) — have to be wondering a few things themselves.

Since the mid-20th century, radio and television networks and stations have operated on an interruptive advertising model — which is to say, the commercials interrupted (several times per hour) the content that the audience had presumably tuned in for.

Viewers and listeners tended to see these interruptions as a necessary evil, and their affection for commercial breaks usually didn’t go a whole lot deeper than that.

The vast majority of commercials were not designed with the idea that people would want to watch then again and again.

Now the audiences that had been held captive for so long have begun to break free.

The interruptive advertising model still reigns at the broadcast networks and on basic cable channels (not to mention on younger Internet and streaming services like YouTube and Hulu), so it’s not going away any time soon. Still, viewers are expecting more and more from advertising, and advertisers have begun to give it to them in various ways.

1. Branded content — If you think about it (and I know you will), most commercials have been surprisingly similar for decades. They usually show an actor pretending to have a problem (a headache, a pulled hamstring, a hankering for stew), pretending to use a product, and pretending that the pretend problem has gone away.

The vast majority of commercials were not designed with the idea that people would want to watch then again and again. They were designed with the idea that people would be forced to watch them again and again. But forcing people to watch things ain’t what it used to be.

Branded content is about using humor and pathos to connect with your audience in deeper ways than advertisers in previous decades thought was possible or even sensible.

These days, the engine and objective of entertainment, advertising and information is viral video. Consider the interesting case of The Tonight Show.

The high points of the Johnny Carson era (Ed Ames’ tomahawk throw; Carson eating dog food; pooping roosters; and skits and interview segments gone hilariously awry) were accidents and improvisations that were enthusiastically repackaged on subsequent clip shows and collectible videotapes.

In the current Jimmy Fallon era, however, Tonight Show writers seem to strive daily expressly to craft short segments that they hope and trust will be shared on the Internet the next morning.

Advertisers are thinking along these lines as well.

When you can no longer force people to watch commercials, you have to create commercials that people want to share. Branded content is about using humor and pathos to connect with your audience in deeper ways than advertisers in previous decades thought was possible or even sensible.

Branded content is about giving the viewer value, according to Coull.com’s senior business development manager Zac Froud. “It sounds simple enough in principle,” he says, “give the consumer some form of entertainment or information that’s vaguely associated with your brand and they’ll be lined up around the broadband block to purchase your products.”

Avi Savar, founder and chief creative officer of the social media agency Big Fuel, told Ad Week that traditional advertising focuses on the product, while branded content focuses on people. Savar said both forms need to coexist.

“It’s important for brands to tell really compelling stories that connect to the audience and drive with great storytelling,” he said, “but I also understand and appreciate the need for product-focused content in that people need to understand what a product is, does, and can do for them.”

Asked how he finds “the sweet spot between content that gets spread and content that promotes the brand,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told the website Sparksheet, “In any campaign, we’re doing five to ten pieces of content, minimum. There’s a range of content that sits on the spectrum between getting people excited about what the brand stands for and about the brand’s attributes. … The challenge is if you unbalance yourself in either direction. If it’s so fun and interesting but doesn’t convey a brand attribute, you have an issue. If it’s only about why a product is awesome, with no give or interest, then you’ve similarly erred.”

Despite the existence of such wondrous technological innovations as tablets and smart phones, HD and 3-D, the biggest revolution in the way we consume our entertainment and information is a much quieter one. It has to do with choice.

The Hulu show Farmed and Dangerous, which was created by the fast casual chain Chipotle, may represent the apogee of branded content. It is a satire of industrial farming techniques that does not, in fact, make explicit mention of Chipotle.

Farmed and Dangerous is, according to the New York Times, the result of a “stealth marketing strategy [that] is not about ‘product integration,’ but ‘values integration.’”

For years, advertisers’ strategy for infiltrating entertainment has been all about product placement, the sometimes-clumsy practice of having fictional characters and reality TV stars use certain real-life products in the context of programming.

Hulu calls Farmed and Dangerous “brand-authored content,” according to the New York Times. “[The show] sits in between content for entertainment and advertising,” Hulu executive Bryan Thoensen is quoted as saying.

Thoensen said he felt comfortable placing Farmed and Dangerous in its lineup of more traditionally made comedies because of its high production values and recognized actors.

In the New York Times, Noam Cohen wrote, “Mr. Thoensen described ‘Farmed and Dangerous’ as an example of the longed-for convergence of the advertising industry and Hollywood, with ‘brands as studios.’”

If brands are to become studios, advertisers are going to have to forgo the centuries’ old practice of product-touting in favor of the even older practice of storytelling.

2. Custom or targeted advertising — In the past, if you were one-half of a married couple who had decided not to have children but who enjoyed watching the sitcom Full House, you likely were subjected to diaper commercials. These commercials were not relevant to you, but you had to sit through them anyway because that’s just the way things were back then. That may all change, before too long.

Whenever you surf the Net, personal information about you is collected or mined. In an article for the New York Review of Books called “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined,” Alice E. Marwick nicely summed up the data-mining situation thusly: “The industry of collecting, aggregating, and brokering personal data is known as ‘database marketing.’ The second-largest company in this field, Acxiom, has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year, according to The New York Times. It claims to have records on hundreds of millions of Americans, including 1.1 billion browser cookies (small pieces of data sent from a website, used to track the user’s activity), 200 million mobile profiles, and an average of 1,500 pieces of data per consumer. These data include information gleaned from publicly available records like home valuation and vehicle ownership, information about online behavior tracked through cookies, browser advertising, and the like, data from customer surveys, and ‘offline’ buying behavior. The CEO, Scott Howe, says, ‘Our digital reach will soon approach nearly every Internet user in the US.’

Broadcast and cable advertising is moving toward a day when it will be targeted to each person’s or family’s household.

“Visiting virtually any website places a digital cookie, or small text file, on your computer,” Marwick continued, “‘First-party’ cookies are placed by the site itself, such as Gmail saving your password so that you don’t have to log in every time you visit the site. ‘Third-party cookies’ persist across sites, tracking what sites you visit, in what order. For those who have logged in, Google Chrome and Firefox sync this browsing history across devices, combining what you do on your iPad with your iPhone with your laptop. This is used to deliver advertising.”

There are people who are fine with this sort of thing and people who most definitely are not. That’s a debate for another blog or several blogs.

What this has meant, however, for Internet users is that they have seen more advertising that is relevant to them and less that is not.

One day soon this will happen on the broadcast and cable TV level as well.

In January, NBCUniversal and Comcast announced an advanced advertising strategy called NBCU+ Powered by Comcast. It allows NBCU, according to Jon Lafayette of the Business of Broadcasting and Cable Television website, to “use anonymized data from Comcast combined with research from other sources including loyalty card data to better target national buys on its linear broadcast and cable networks and will be able target ads on the household level on its video on demand inventory.”

Yes, broadcast and cable advertising is moving toward a day when it will be targeted to each person’s or family’s household.

Depending on how you feel about privacy or diaper ads, this may be unwelcome or welcome news.

Steve Penhollow
Writer/Editor
BMDG

Video/Screenshot: YouTube 

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