a free market in commercials

So one of the things the Lady Wife brought to our marriage was one of these “Tivo” boxes for watching television. To be honest, I’m a little behind the times on this — largely because I haven’t had a TV in about six years. This doesn’t make me a better person than you — I still watched copious amounts of TV on DVD and Hulu. (The fact that I can actually listen to The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir all the way through — that makes me a better person than you. Not having a TV was just an accident.)

My wife, on the other hand, has two TVs, a DVD player, and, of course, this Tivo. When we moved into our new apartment, we were so pleased with the amount we were paying in rent that we decided to get basic cable, too, and my wife patiently spent several hours connecting boxes and programming things so that we could record shows. So now I watch TV on a TV, which is nice, because my laptop is now useful again for things like blogging about my home electronics.

When we were dating, I pretty much never saw a commercial, because the Lady Friend was a ruthless and expert skipper of commercials. I’ve worried for a while now that DVR technology would destroy television as a business, because advertisers obvious won’t pay for airtime if everyone’s just going to skip their ads. And my wife’s approach seemed to confirm that problem.

But now that we’re married and her Tivo is my Tivo and because we work opposite shifts I am sometimes alone with the Tivo, I’ve discovered that I, through laziness or passivity or a sort of last-gasp loyalty to commercially sponsored television, often forget to fast forward when the commercials come around. My wife, even if she’s three-fourths asleep next to me on the futon, will instinctively feel around for the remote to avoid being sloganeered by purveyors of car insurance and premium gasoline. But I often forget. For a while. And I’ve noticed two things about my relationship with commercials in this strange new land of ad-optional viewing.

The first is that I don’t generally get impatient right away. I don’t mind sitting and watching one commercial. It’s waiting through the second and third and fourth ads that usually inspires me to press the fast forward button.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes I like to watch ads. Many ads, being basically short films on a single theme, have a terrific punch and cleverness that I sometimes wish TV programs themselves had. So today, for example, I’ve watched an ad for Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine, because the ad cleverly replicates the frustration one often feels at the blockheaded stupidity of Google search results.

(By the way, it took me six different searches on Google and YouTube to find that.) I’ve also watched the T-Mobile ad about people chasing economists off their lawns and the Prius ad that shows a car driving through a field of human flowers. (That last one mainly just makes me wonder how they do the special effects.) On the other hand, I’ll promptly skip the Burger King ad that features the Whopper, Jr. on a faux home shopping channel (ugh) or the bland “ecomagination” corporate image-polishing video from GE.

What does all this mean? Well, of course, a certain percentage of viewers will simply skip all commercials, and advertisers will have to live with that fact. But it turns out advertisers can do quite a bit to salvage their viewership. And that means that there might now be a more competitive market in advertising, which would be a good thing for us all. Advertisers might well compete for the first slot in each block of ads, hoping that they can engage our attention before we have a chance to realize that we’re watching a commercial. They may also try to more closely monitor microdemographics of a given show, since Tivo reports that viewers are less likely to skip ads they think are relevant to them. And of course, some products are simply more interesting than others: Tivo also reports that viewers skip movie trailers less than any other kind of ad.

But if we’re lucky, perhaps the ability of consumers to pick and choose between ads will result in better advertising. Up to now, advertisers have had only the clumsiest, most aggragated feedback from viewers about whether their ads were truly eye-catching or interesting. But now they’ll have, essentially, the kind of instantaneous feedback that Nielsen ratings provide to television studios. And we can all see how that’s improved the quality of television shows.

Seriously, though — in this way ads are in a bit better position than TV shows, for two reasons. First, sure, some good, interesting ads will probably tank. But who cares? They’re ads. And second, because ads are more like short movies on YouTube or FunnyOrDie than they are like long-form drama, viewers will invest the minimal time involved if an ad can prove itself engaging and clever.

The real danger, in terms of taste, comes from ads that are compelling but also revolting — whatever the Jerry Springer or A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila of advertising might be. But here, fortunately, we might be spared — advertisers are happy to hawk their products between the acts of such shows, but they seem, so far, to be reticent to actually wade into the jello-pool of debauchery where their brands are on the line. This isn’t because companies are above such things, but because it’s probably not economical for Toyota to create one set of ads for NBC, another set for F/X, another set for MTV after 10 p.m., and so on. On the whole, we benefit from advertisers’ limited resources and their need to make one ad appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Yes, I think the DVR revolution might augur well for, at least, the art of advertising, in much the way that the introduction of cable in the 1980s forced the networks to stop making crap and start producing better TV. And with that, we return you to your show, “Economic Musings On Ten-Year-Old Technology,” already in progress.

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4 Responses to a free market in commercials

  1. Grambear says:

    Bing certainly is crisp and clean looking. Wish they’d named it for someone other than Crosby though.

  2. amy says:

    somebody’s dad videotaped Desperate Housewives and sent it to us at our undisclosed deployed location. And we were PISSED because he fast-forwarded through the commercials and we hadn’t seen any commercials in months and they looked wonderful! Burger King and movies and new cars!!!! and it was so frustrating that we couldn’t slow the video down and watch them!But now I fast forward my DVR right through the breaks, thank you very much.

  3. The Camel says:

    Well, I just binged myself — ugh, that’s a worse verb than "to google" — and while it did find my filmographies and my myspace page, it didn’t turn up my blog.

  4. Dean Gadda says:

    I confess that both wife and I fast forward through most commercials whenever we have the chance. Furthermore when the opportunity to mute the commercials is the only dodge available I do that. Commercials most ff’d or muted in our household are led by the onerous come-ons from the prescription drug people. I really like the ones that advertise side effects such as nausea, dry mouth, anal bleading, fainting and yes, even sudden death. We stopped advertising cigarrettes, can" something be done about this?

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