Wake Up! Consumers Don’t Like to Watch Ads

The recent shutdown of ads-as-content site Firebrand says a lot about what happens when marketers drink their own proverbial Kool-Aid.

Don’t know what Firebrand was? Don’t fret. If you blinked, you probably missed it: it was only up five months. Basically it was a combination of an Ion Television show and a site that offered commercials as entertainment. Yup, you read that right: it was a TV show and a site that showed commercials.

Dumb idea? Apparently Microsoft, NBC Universal, Ion Media Networks, and the Peacock Equity Fund (NBC and GE’s Commercial Finance) didn’t think so when they plunked down a hunk of cash to fund the start-up. Nobody really knows how much, though CEO John Lack was quoted in “The New York Times” as saying that they’d “spend about $30 million by the time [they] get to air.” Yup, 30 million bucks.

Why’d they do it? Apparently the idea was spawned as a reaction to the growing popularity of viral ads on YouTube, the zillions of advertising review sites and blogs popping up, and the popularity of sites like veryfunnyads.com and Honeyshed.com. NBC was originally going to call the site didja.com (as in “Didja see that?), but the whole thing morphed into Firebrand when NBC and others decided to invest.

Problem was, the show really never drew the numbers it needed to survive, and neither did the site. There were some peaks at predictable spots (around Christmas and the Super Bowl), but in general the graphs show pretty flat performance.

Why did Firebrand do so badly? One of the best explanations can be found on this hilarious Advertising Lab post that compares the Firebrand’s viewership with the number of people working in ad agencies in the United States (Nielsen puts Firebrand’s viewership at 106,000 in January and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 188,100 folks working in advertising). Competitors veryfunnyads and Honeyshed really ain’t doin’ much better.

But there’s another explanation, one we can all learn from. It’s pretty simple, really: consumers don’t want to watch ads! Tons of data show consumers with DVRs routinely skip past ads. A fascinating study by the folks at BuzzMetrics finds the most common words bloggers associate with “advertising” are “false,” “deceptive,” and “misleading.” Forrester Research finds that while consumers’ attitudes toward advertising have improved a bit since 2004, “sentiment remains negative overall, and more consumers have put their dissatisfaction into action by taking steps to block ads.” It adds that the consumers they surveyed pointed toward “clutter, interruption, and irrelevance as the key reasons for their frustration.” Well, duh!

Let’s all repeat the following statement again and again until it sinks in: consumers don’t like ads. Go ahead, turn it into your meditation mantra until you believe it. It’s true and wishing it were otherwise won’t make it not so.

“But if they hate ads so much,” you say, “why do they pass them around so much?” After all, there are studies that say so, right?

Yes, but I think this JupiterResearch study tells the real tale: only 15 percent of viral campaigns achieved their goal of getting consumers to do the promotion for them. The firm also finds that targeting influentials to get the message out didn’t work all that well, either, leading to 55 percent of marketers who employ the tactic to say they’ll decrease their usage of influential seeding during 2008.

The real point is this: consumers don’t pass on ads (or post them to their blogs or talk about them at work or e-mail them to friends) just because they’re ads. While it may be a shocking realization to many of us in the ad biz, the fact is the only people who care about ads are the people who make them, professionally critique them, or report on them. The average people we’re all trying to reach probably spends more time thinking about what kind of toothpaste they’ll buy than they do thinking about how much they enjoyed the advertising they watched. Scratch that. They’ve probably skipped past or blocked most of the advertising they’ve been exposed to anyway.

Consumers pass along certain ads because they’re entertaining. They don’t care about the brand, the message, and (more apropos to this column) the people making them. If you live in a hermetically sealed world — working with ad folks, reading ad blogs, and keeping up with ad industry news — of course you’ll think everyone else cares about ads as much as you do. That was the Firebrand folks’ hubris. Heck, their tagline even said so: “Firebrand. We love commercials.” Obviously nobody else does.

Marketers need to really grok the fact that what we do isn’t beloved by most. Sure, they might get a jolt out of a few Super Bowl spots, but they also get a jolt out of dancing walruses, videos about gadgets, watching things break, and funny clips from their favorite shows, according to this list of the most popular YouTube videos. Just because they pass around commercials doesn’t mean they like them. They don’t.

Think about this the next time you fall in love with a Big Idea. You’re dealing with a public with a short attention span and (at best) a pretty well tuned BS meter when it comes to commercial messages. Respect that and you’ll be well on your way to creating advertising that doesn’t stink (and that may actually work).

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