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Dish Network's The Hopper could put tv advertising in The Crapper.

Dish Network's The Hopper could put tv advertising in The Crapper.

Dish Network, as you probably know, is a satellite dish delivered TV service that represents a great alternative to Verizon and Comcast locally and other cable providers elsewhere, especially in more remote areas where cable networks are spotty. Dish seems to have, more or less, equivalent content as competitors, but in the past there have been occasional nasty snits over Dish’s non-offering of a major league sports team’s games in its home market. Plus, recently, AMC, the cable network that broadcasts MadMen, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and other great original series has been having a contract dispute with Dish Network over being dropped from its service. It always comes down to dollars and cents. Dish wants more from AMC to carry its programming. Perhaps they deserve it. However, not based on Dish’s other current controversy and marketing decision.

Dish has a feature-rich new DVR (digital video recorder) called The Hopper. The Hopper does a great many things. Its main claim to fame is that it enables a lot of multi-set and even multi-device viewing and recording of separate programming with the ability to remotely control by smartphone. The Hopper puts a tremendous amount of user-friendly control in the hands of Dish Network viewers, so they can watch what they want, when they want, where they want, and on what player or tv they want. So far, so great.

One of those viewer controls happens to be the ability to skip commercials altogether. In other words, watch an hour of programming in say 45 minutes, sans all the breaks for advertising sponsors. It is a feature that has long been talked about, but represents a type of third rail in the broadcast industry. Advertising helps pay for programming. Advertising helps make networks, including Dish, profitable. Advertising helps the overall economy by helping businesses sell their products and services. Why would you ever want to do anything to disturb it?

So is Dish’s answer to charge networks like AMC a lot more to broadcast their programming over their satellite network? If so, and Dish viewers can zap commercials carried by AMC and other networks, how are those networks going to earn more to pay Dish? Sounds like a proverbial house of cards.

Amazingly, Dish has no problem itself with advertising. It has put together a very entertaining campaign to promote The Hopper using a Boston-accented family of humorous characters who effectively and entertainingly extoll Hopper’s many features including the ad-skipping one.  This spot, in particular, is both funny and a classic have-your-cake-and-eat-it moment for Dish. They clearly understand what they are doing, they are self-satisfied by their own cleverness, and they figure it is someone else’s problem.

The other networks are not taking this lying down, though. Most have voiced serious concerns. The Wall Street Journal noted a lot of upset among top execs, who are planning action.

Personally, I don’t think The Hopper is going to be the death of tv advertising or advertising period (Dish is also running commercial-skipping Hopper radio spots, as well as print and social media ads). But I think enabling The Hopper’s commercial-skipping technology is a bad business decision. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

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Advertising is all about beautiful people (aka supermodels), looking beautiful, acting beautiful, and being beautiful while using the sponsor’s product. While this type of advertising is easy on the eyes, there is so much, it can become like wallpaper, blending into the background, barely attracting attention. This week, a new presidential campaign tv ad launched that so jarringly broke the beauty mold that it was all that every media pundit has focused on ever since. I’m talking about Herman Cain’s Smoking Man spot.

The Smoking Man (not to be confused with that mysterious X Files figure) is actually Cain’s Chief of Staff, Mark Block, who while delivering a weirdly cadenced but believably impassioned endorsement of his boss, proceeds to literally blow smoke, because he is enjoying a cigarette outside.

What is going on here? How can a man responsible for helping his boss project a positive, electable image allow himself to be videotaped matter-of-factly puffing on a cigarette. Commentators across the political spectrum, almost in unison, wondered aloud why he would set such a bad example for young people. Hint: it wasn’t by accident!

It is hard to stun people in 2011, but amazingly, this ad has managed to move the meter off the chart. The question is why? Cigarettes are a legal product. They appear often in popular entertainment (films, tv shows, and music videos). Our current president has been known to sneak outside the White House to light up. So, why is this ad so surprising?

It’s been a ridiculously long time since anyone in a tv ad smoked (except for an anti-smoking PSA). And cigarettes while legal are perhaps the most heavily regulated products on the market (with even more regulations proposed). And now, we’re getting to the crux of this message — the current regulatory and capriciously restrictive environment of the United States. At a time when people on the right, left, and in the center are fed up with feelings of powerlessness, it is strangely liberating to see a man in a tv ad smoking a cigarette. It is un-PC. It is unhealthy. It is unnervingly appealing in a defy the nanny-state way.

Already the spot’s YouTube page has attracted nearly one million visitors. Less than 10,000 have weighed in to “like” or “dislike”, but the dislikes are running well ahead, not exactly a scientific poll, but a trend nonetheless.

It is too early to tell whether this is a spark for the Cain campaign or just a weird reminder that America is still free even if the Marlboro Man isn’t allowed to ride the broadcast range anymore.

Update: Election year news cycles are notoriously short. It’s exactly one week later and Mr. Cain is dealing with fire instead of smoke this week. So far, the sexual harassment allegations are sketchy, but the candidate’s handling of the media questioning has been spotty at best. Consistency and accuracy of story is critical when it comes to crisis PR.  If you believe the old adage that this is no BAD PR, Mr. Cain has had two news-dominating weeks.

When is the last time you saw a man smoke a cigarette in a TV spot?

When is the last time you saw a man smoke a cigarette in a TV spot?

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Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

No wonder advertisers get confused about how to allocate media dollars. It is an absolute free-for-all. A day does not go by without another news item suggesting how one medium or platform is overtaking or supplanting another. I routinely remind myself of the progression that TV did not kill radio when it came on the scene, and likewise, the Internet did not replace TV. Every form of media is still in active use (papyrus scrolls and carrier pigeons excepted). I see latest Conan TV ads feature blimp advertising blended with mobile platforms. As a big fan of Team Coco, I am hoping for Goodyear associations, not Hindenberg.

A quick sampling of recent stories should give everyone pause about claiming superiority over another medium or about writing a competing medium’s obituary.

This intriguing story from Advertising Age suggests Facebook is voraciously eating the lunch of major magazine brands. It left me scratching my head about how Burberry, frozen in my own brain as a conservative British purveyor of fine raincoats, has attracted over 8 million followers on Facebook. I visited their pages and came away still scratching my head. This Google search revealed a few clues — fashion launches via Facebook and iPads, free samples of a new fragrance, interactive videos, and easy-to-follow followers like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Still, that is a staggering number of followers, but more power to them. Whatever Burberry is doing, it’s working.

Next up, two stories from Digiday. One reveals how Google is preparing a full frontal assault on newspapers’ biggest cash cow — Sunday circulars. Imagine a digital version of a circular that gives a retailer all kinds of local control to customize content by store, pricing, and product category. Also from Digiday is a rather depressing, confusing  picture of the landscape of digital advertising tech companies. The bar is low for entrants. The result is a mixed bag of options and results for advertisers. Not sure who is being served by this.

This week, New York magazine devotes an extended article to Twitter and whether it is becoming too big for its 140-character britches, er tweets.

If you’re not completely boggled yet, here is video reporting by the print-based Wall Street Journal delivered online from their web site to explain how tv ad spending can be rising as viewership is dropping. Got that?

My next media recommendation? Burma-shave style billboards but delivered with a twist — constantly changing messaging on a series of digital billboards. The product? Attention-deficit disorder drugs.

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