Breaking Through the Ad Blockers

I once wrote that the marketplace and consumers are starting to treat advertising like a computer virus. Ad and pop-up blocker usage has undoubtedly grown since that piece was published. And there’s renewed buzz (and, in some isolated cases, panic) from broadcast advertising stakeholders over DVR growth and the overwhelming majority of DVR users who fast-forward through ads. Meanwhile, Apple’s launch of a video-enabled iPod sparked a ton of content deals that will facilitate video delivery to platforms other than TV.

There’s has been a good bit of coverage of networks’ various attempts to get around DVR users’ obsessive tendency to fast-forward through the stuff that pays the bills. Product placement is making more noise. Some networks are testing new formats. CBS recently announced it will run one-minute ad-supported episodes during regular commercial pods.

It seems my theory wasn’t that far off: users avoid ads, so advertisers invent new kinds of ads to trick them into watching.

As a longtime DVR user, I’ve noticed some less-publicized ways the networks try to get us to pay attention:

  • They use actors from the program you’re watching. Everything goes by in a blur. You see the lead actor from the program you’re watching. Bam! You hit play, only to discover he’s hawking some product.

  • This one’s less likely to be caused entirely by DVR issue, but NBC has an annoying habit of starting programs three to five minutes early or late. Sometimes this shows up in the schedule, but not always. This means those of us with DVRs set to record “ER” from 10 to 11 every Thursday, for example, may miss the first five minutes. That really bugs me.
  • Once, promos for the network’s other shows appeared at the end of each commercial pod. It’s been this way for years. My wife and I have trained ourselves to spot these in the blur of commercials buzzing by at six times normal speed. So if during “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” we fast-forward through some ads and see a promo for the next episode of “The King of Queens,” we instinctively hit “play.” Ah, but the tricky programming people fooled us! They moved the network promos to the middle of the pod. Now you hit play, watch the last few seconds of the network promo — fully expecting to be returned to the program you’re watching — only to discover there’s 90 seconds more of commercials.

I can appreciate the need to find ways to get people to watch ads. It’s a challenge in all media, although more so in broadcast recently and less online. It’s gone from “we must break through the clutter” to “we must break through the blockers.”

As a consumer, I find these efforts annoying. I like my DVR for a lot of reasons, one of which is because I can fast-forward through the annoying, loud, often poorly targeted, uncreative trash that passes for most TV spots. And when the networks and advertisers start to trick me into watching ads I don’t want to consume, it angers me.

Which brings me to another recurring theme: we marketers must absolutely respect consumers above all else. They’re our first responsibility, not the bottom line, or the awareness figures, or whatever the client’s objective is. Without the consumer, there’s nothing. The most brilliant creative is useless if nobody sees it.

I’m all for testing and experimenting to find better ways to connect with audiences. It’s necessary. Kudos to those folks who are, including the networks that are doing their best to figure it out through the methods I’ve complained about above. But make sure you do have consumers in the front of your mind. They’re becoming less and less patient. Our goal must be to find a way to connect with them effectively while being interesting, engaging, entertaining, or valuable enough that the consumer wants to be part of our ads.

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