Disney Turns ‘Clockwork Orange’

Do you recall the scene from “A Clockwork Orange“where Alex is being reprogrammed, eyelids clamped open with lidlocks while being forced to watch video images? Evidently, someone at Disney thought this was an innovative solution to the challenge of DVRs and ad skipping. Disney recently announced it’s working with Cox Communications to disable the fast-forward on its free on-demand programming, hoping to ensure consumers watch the ads.

I have no objection to any business delivering its goods and services under whatever terms it chooses, assuming, of course, such terms are legal. I like the fact, too, that Disney and Cox are at least trying some new ideas. And, hey, we all know “free” doesn’t mean “without cost.”

I don’t believe for a minute that content should be free, at least not content that talented professionals and a robust high-definition network brought to my doorstep. That has real value and costs real money. But the timing — the announcement came just as upfronts were about to get underway — and the implied notion that forcing consumers to watch an ad is a good way to build loyalty are odd. Maybe it’s just me (and Alex), but I don’t get a good feeling when I’m forced to watch something, no matter how well intentioned or well-suited. Typical of the posts that followed the announcement was this negative one by Gigi Sohn of Washington, DC, based Public Knowledge.

If I were buying media time under the assumption of enforced viewership, I’d want a discount. It seems foolish to pay a premium for ill will, and that’s exactly what forcing anyone to watch something is likely to generate. From Disney and Cox’ perspective, the experiment seems reasonable enough: we’ll give you free programming if you’ll watch the ads.

Marketers appear to get the shaft in this deal: Every time an ad comes on and every time viewers reach for the button to find it doesn’t work, expletives are almost sure to spew forth. You can bet they’ll be aimed at the advertiser (since that’s the obvious party at that moment in time) and not Disney or Cox, which implemented the policy to protect their own businesses. Maybe advertisers will put a little note on the bottom of these ads saying, “Sorry you’re being forced to watch this. Please don’t hate us.

All this is beside the point, though. Savvy e-marketers will immediately recognize the issue: between digital control and personal multitasking, it’s unlikely anyone is paying attention to, much less engaging with, content that isn’t of immediate interest. It’s also clear that unless the same content is validated in a personal social network — where people are much more likely to pay attention — it amounts to little more than background noise.

This is the reality many marketers are confronting. It’s a reality that cuts across channels, too, and online media isn’t exempt. Study after study of usability and comprehension shows that consumers have learned to tune out a Web page’s top and right-hand column. These areas are largely assumed to be extraneous ad content. This behavior accounts for the incredibly low click-through rates (e.g., half or less of direct mail open rates) of typical static campaigns. If we woke up each morning in search of an ad, those click-though rates would be much higher. But we don’t, so they aren’t.

I’d love to see Disney and Cox experiment with À la carte programming, channel by channel, show by show, episode by episode. Plenty of consumers would love to be able to purchase specific channels without having to also buy 20, 40, 80, or 150 others. My long-term money is on the pay-per-view model, likely driven by the combination of IPTV (define) and À la carte programming via the Internet.

More than a few posts following the Disney announcement seem to agree, like Ron Miller’s. I’ve written about this as well. If consumers paid for programming and marketers reduced ad budgets since they were no longer producing all those spots, consumers might actually save money.

For me, the real issue is personal choice and control. Why do I have to watch an ad right now? If I were in the mood to buy something now, I’d be at the mall (or, more likely, online). But I’m not, I’m relaxing. Along with legions of others, I’d happily pay a fee to get what I want, in particular À la carte, not some 2 zillion package, delivered when I want it.

What is it about choice and control — which works so well in nearly every other industry — that TV doesn’t seem to get? Even automakers figured out long ago that only offering the AM/FM stereo/cassette if you also buy the deluxe trim package was dumb. Not coincidentally, the option for an individual customer to order her specific car À la carte was pioneered by Toyota. Didn’t it just become the largest automaker in the world?

As you think about your next campaign, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I giving potential customers any role in this campaign? If not, how could I do that in a way that still respects and protects my brand?
  • Am I giving potential customers the ability to watch this ad at some other time if right now isn’t convenient? If not, how could I do that?
  • Am I giving potential customers the ability to easily send my ad — in a way that I can properly track — to someone else who’s likely to be interested? If not, why not? This one is actually easy and can be done today.

Time and results will validate or refute the Disney/Cox enforced-view trial. Since by definition the viewership will be 100 percent, the real test will be change in brand impression and inclination to buy after watching a non-skippable ad. I only hope more than a few brands that buy these slots do the work required to assess performance.

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