OK, so first up: I come to praise TV, not to bury it. I still think that done right, TV can’t be beat for making an impact, getting campaigns on customers’ radar and turning brands into cultural content.
Having watched a lot of TV ads recently, I was pretty gobsmacked by how many still don’t reflect how people interact with the channel now. For three reasons.
I remember listening to Jarvis Cocker lamenting how music wasn’t as central to people’s lives now compared to when he was growing up. Now, he said, music “just sort of sits in the background, like pot pourri.” Unless you’re talking about big watercooler shows, I think that’s now pretty much the same for TV too.
For example, when we’re at home, we spend most of our time in the kitchen with the TV on. But we’re usually cooking (OK, Sam’s cooking), so she’s got her back to the TV. And I’m either on my phone, the laptop or playing with the cats. So the TV’s on more to provide a noise, Jarvis’ aural pot pourri, rather than to be watched. I’m guessing that’s the same with most homes.
But here’s the thing: next time you’re watching TV, listen for how many times (if at all) the script/voiceover mentions the brand name - for a great example of this at work take a look at the campaign we produced for eye supplement brand Macushield.
There’s a few notable, consistent exceptions to this rule (direct response charity ads - who know they have to pull like a train or else - being one) but on the whole, I’d say over 50% of ads I saw over Christmas rely wholly on visual representations of their brand on screen. Take the new Center Parcs TV spots. Beautifully shot, good performances, nice script - which doesn’t mention Center Parcs once. Now, without even getting onto the two million people in the UK with some kind of visual impairment, that’s a lot of people who won’t be getting your message because they’re not granting you 100% of their attention. (Spoiler: they won’t be.) So why do so many ads still do it?
Speaking of spoilers, the film studios know this one. Watch pretty much any new trailer online and they’ll frontload a 6 seconds cutdown - BOSH! Shot of main star! BOSH! Action sequence! BOSH! Film logo! - before playing the whole thing. And obviously, that’s because it needs to grab your attention before you scroll down to a film of a racoon falling into a paddling pool. But the problem for TV ads - for the reasons we covered earlier - is that how we consume social has recalibrated our attention spans to be insanely short.
And yet, again, based on ones I’ve seen recently, I’d say more than half of 30” or 40” TV ads are still following the same structure: 95% set-up before - ta-dah! - we finally see the brand/product reveal in the closing three seconds.
I’m not sure this was ever an effective structure, even during a bygone, halcyon age when people supposedly dutifully watched an ad from start to finish (Did they, though? Really? Did distractions not exist in 1960s living rooms? Newspapers? Board games? Dansette record players?)
Either way, in today’s second-screening world, when we’re all looking for an excuse to reach for our phones, it’s hopelessly outdated. Ads aren’t jokes; they don’t need to have a leisurely lead up to a punchline - nor are they detective thrillers, where pieces of information gradually coalesce to reveal the killer. So why do so ads many still follow that format?
To go back to life at Howard Towers, if we’re not watching TV in the kitchen, we’re watching it in the sitting room. Lounge. Whatever. Now, unlike the kitchen, this is actual, dedicated TV watching time. “Hurray!” say the advertisers. Unfortunately, because we’ve come here specifically to watch what we want and only what we want, ads are the equivalent of wasps at a picnic. So we fast forward them.
And that means advertisers have got the converse problem to when we’re (kind of) watching ads in the kitchen: now there’s no audio, only visuals. And visuals going at 30 times faster than they’re designed to be watched. So what’s the solution? Again, a lot of DRTV charity ads have got their shiz together on this, with 99% of them having a phone number or URL on screen throughout. If you wanted to get really thorough, you could even have a series of subs on screen for 10 secs each getting your main message(s) across. A bit like subheads in a letter, in case (or assuming) people don’t read the body copy.
Maybe that’s talking things a bit too far, but as advertisers we need to start thinking a lot harder about the setting in which our TV content’s consumed, then structure, write and art direct it accordingly.
So let’s end with a lesson from Cheiron Studios - the Stockholm-based uber-pop juggernaut & writers of 90s hits for the likes of Britney, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and 5ive - and how they used to stress-test their work. They knew that they wouldn’t get a true representation of how people would actually hear their songs by playing them through state-of-the-art speakers in their Stockholm studio, nor even by listening to them on a Volvo stereo as they drove along a grey Swedish motorway.
Instead, when they were happy with a mix, they’d take the song over to the US for their “LA Car Test.” Because it was if - and only if - the song sounded amazing in an open-top car driving down Mulholland - with all its distractions, background noise and played through a half-decent car stereo - that they’d give the song the green light. And today, Cheiron alumnus Max Martin is the world’s third most successful song writer, beaten only by two blokes called Lennon & McCartney.
So, y’know, he’s obviously doing something right. Maybe we should deploy our own equivalent of the LA Car Test next time we’re making a TV ad?
By Frazer Howard, Creative Director