Name That Show

Sometimes when my wife and I watch TV together, we play a strange game. While flipping through channels, one of us will stop at a commercial and have the other guess what type of show it is and what type of demographic the advertisers think they’re targeting.

It all started because I apparently “twitch flip” channels — a practice that can cause marital discord with some people. (It occurs to me now that if our marriage is ever in trouble, we might be able to justify getting a TiVo device. Hmm…) In an effort to make me slow down and smell the proverbial television roses, we developed the Name That Show game.

You would be amazed how accurate you can become with just a little practice. You see Biori pads? I can name that show in just one commercial: You’re watching Friends on network TV. That was a Stri-Dex ad? Must be Friends in syndication. AC Nielsen has nothing on us.

And, incidentally, if you start seeing ads for Bloussant chest enhancer, our research shows that you should just keep flipping before the program starts up. Better safe than sorry.

So I got to thinking about the Name That Show game when I last looked at the NetRatings list of top 10 Web ads. What are these ads saying about the content on the Web and the people viewing it? It’s not very flattering.

Two of the top three banner ads are for credit counseling, the moral equivalent of the late-night TV fare we see served up between episodes of “The Rockford Files.”

Coincidentally, fourth- and fifth-place ads masquerade as Windows error dialogue boxes, trying to trick users into believing that the ad is part of their operating system. These ads for Colonize and BONZI Software are sort of like those cheesy infomercials that pretend to be real shows — such as the ones concerning fitness and cooking. One of them even flashes a caution icon about five times a second, managing to make my own, personal “annoying top 10.”

Two credit-card direct response ads, three direct response CD-of-the-month-type clubs, and a people-search offer round out the rest of the list.

From this set of ads I’d draw the following conclusions about the average Web user profile:

  • The average user is a male (lots of women in the creative).
  • He has a low income (Morgan Chase’s credit card offer proffers free gas, and most of the other ads all focus on price).
  • He spends more than his income allows, engendering credit problems.
  • He’s about as gullible as the average QVC shopper.

Now, I don’t think this properly reflects either the composition of the Web audience or the behaviors that the audience exhibits while online. Why the disconnect?

One reason might be that I’m being naove — that aside from the people I know, most other Internet users are impulsive cheapskate mouth breathers who tend not to pay their debts.

The other, more likely reason is that only those particular advertisers — the ones seeking cheap, responsive audiences with no regard to segmentation — have learned to appreciate the Web as a medium. The generous version of this theory would hold that the branding people for the large ad budgets continue to hold off on Web advertising because the creative medium doesn’t yet allow for an effective-enough branding message.

The more obvious version of the theory — one that is perhaps a little less generous — holds that the branding folks know a good thing when they’ve got it, and they’re loath to introduce accountability metrics into their jobs. They know TV and print, and TV and print never came back a month later to drop a poor performance report on their heads like a ton of bricks.

I did a little experiment for this article, going to some of the Net’s most popular sites. I cataloged the ads that I saw to see if they better reflected the content I was viewing. I found very little correlation. In fact, I found a lot of those same ads in the NetRatings top 10.

It appears that targeting distinctions exist online, but advertisers are not putting the scrutiny on their media buys to make sure they’re taking advantage of them. They’re treating the Internet, instead, like one vast late-night TV commercial pod.

Perhaps as a result we’re seeing the cost-per-thousand (CPM) rates of the Internet dive to rational levels. Now that we can pick up a few million impressions of Internet media for late-night TV rates, some of those large advertisers have to begin to ask themselves: Who’s going to exploit this? If they can overcome their cultural aversion to nonbroadcast media, a few of those large brand budgets could now make a killing.

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