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The incessant witless repetition of advertisers' moron-fodder has become so much a part of life that if we are not careful, we forget to be insulted by it.
TIMES (LONDON), 1886
"You're soaking in it."
MADGE THE MANICURIST
Only in the age of persuasion is it possible that the first thing you hear from your clock radio in the morning, and the last thing you see before your eyes flutter slowly shut at night, are advertisements. Early each morning you might hear a half-dozen ads on the radio before your feet touch the floor. Staggering out of bed, you'll pass brand logos on your clothing as you make your way to the privy, where you're surrounded by bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo, Colgate Total toothpaste, Speed Stick deodorant, a Gillette razor, and Ivory soap. You eye the Alka-Seltzer, remembering that glass-too-many of gin and tonic last night.
Your breakfast table resembles a logo gallery, where you sit surrounded by the images of multiple corporate brands—on a box of breakfast cereal, a milk carton, a package of frozen blueberry waffles, and a bottle of syrup. Flip on the TV and you might encounter ads for Glade air freshener, Downy fabric softener, the latest Pixar film, Ford Focus, Monistat yeast infection remedy, and a neighbourhood slip-and-fall law firm. A quick flip through your morning newspaper might reveal dozens more sales messages, from holistic healing and grocery specials to sporting goods and Jenny Craig products to men's fashions and discreet escorts, all of it before that first sip of Folgers coffee passes your lips.
That happens before you travel to work, shop, visit, or play—along roads and highways bedecked with posters, signs, murals, bus benches, billboards, and store signs—and before you turn on your car radio with its ads, traffic sponsors, station promos, and contests and before you flip open your MacBook to discover a screen dotted with banners and pop-up ads. You can see where this is headed: you may already have experienced dozens of what the marketing world calls "brand exposures" and it isn't even 8 a.m. By the time you fall asleep at the end of the day to the sound of a TV ad playing, with an ad-laden magazine sagging in your hand against the duvet, you will have been targeted by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of marketing messages.
Branding is at the core of all marketing. Different marketers have their own take on what branding really is, but to me, it means defining what a product or service promises and how it differs from the competition. For example, a Volvo is just a car, but when the idea of "safety" was added, its brand was defined. Nike is just a running shoe, but the powerful idea of "personal achievement" was attached to every single advertising message they sent out, and that gave the famous footwear its own personality. Calvin Klein's clothing line is just apparel, but when the designer linked the idea of "sex" to it, sexy clothing became his category. And then there's Coke. In a taste test once, the iconic drink was compared to an undisclosed cola. People chose Coke over the mystery item almost a hundred to one. Then the undisclosed soda was revealed: it was, in fact, Coke. The difference between the two was branding: the Coke enhances your life "idea" beat the other cola, which had no idea attached to it. When people sampled Coke, they not only tasted the sugar and water combination; they also tasted the logo and the imagery, commercials, and promotions that have accompanied the drink for decades.
YOUR DAILY AD INTAKE
Metaphorically speaking, the world has come to look like a NASCAR driver's racing suit, with every square inch occupied by a logo. And it's not just physical space advertisers covet: in 2007 the Chicago White Sox sold their "official start time" to the 7-Eleven convenience store chain. All weeknight games—at U.S. Cellular Field—were scheduled for 7:11 p.m.
It's impossible to measure the exact number of ads lobbed your way on a given day, but that hasn't prevented educators, researchers, and journalists from wondering, or worse, offering educated guesses masquerading as scientific fact. This game probably began in 1957 with a speech by Edwin Ebel, then a vice-president with General Foods. To make a point, he announced that he'd done a little research of his own and had found that a family of four was exposed to 1,518 ads per day. Though there's no evidence that his research was more than anecdotal, the figure was widely repeated, and in a late-fifties variation of the "telephone game," the number was soon believed to apply to an individual consumer. In his 1997 book, Data Smog, David Shenk set the number at six hundred. That's the same figure I often quoted while giving creative radio seminars for ad agency writers, adding, from a source since forgotten, that of all those ads, most people would retain only six and, ultimately, maybe—just maybe—remember two. Over the years, I've heard people insist, with more confidence, I think, than evidence, that you're exposed to 3,000, 6,000, even 15,000 ads per day.
The trouble is, no one can agree on criteria. Are you "exposed" to an ad if you scan it with your eyes and don't consciously notice it? Do you count a radio jingle that plays in the car while you're telling your three-year-old not to throw Cheerios at your eighteen-month old? If you glance at your underwear label as you dress, does that count? And what about the quality of each ad exposure? If you read the 250-word Verizon Wireless ad on page 31 of Rolling Stone magazine, should it count as much as the Nicorette ad you'd glanced at on page 21?
Then there's the sticky business of quantifying the "average" consumer, who is, at best, a figment of the statistician's oh-so-narrow imagination. In marketing, the practice of demography can be ridiculously cloudy and vague. An advertiser might brief me on wanting to reach "Canadian women, twenty to twenty-eight years old." The trouble is, that group will include an upwardly mobile Vancouver lawyer with a husband, a dog, and a mortgage; an old-order Mennonite in Wallenstein, Ontario; and an anarchistic gay barista in Fredericton. Demographers might miss the fact that a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two could have more in common with a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two than she has with another twenty-eight-year-old. Ads will affect urban dwellers differently than those in farm country. There are just too many variables to consider demographics accurate. On the other hand, "psychographics" provide more insight because they highlight attitudes and aspirations. For example, 13 percent of Wii game users are men over fifty, but my fourteen-year-old daughter is also a Wii player. No demographic is going to reveal that, but psychographics would, as both fifty-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds who like Wii share similar attitudes in the gamer category. This kind of research identifies "tribes"—groups who share the same thinking on a product or subject. And with limited budgets, smart marketers aim at larger tribes, rather than trying to find all their customers by ferreting through multiple demographic age and income categories.
TRY THIS NIFTY EXPERIMENT
For the sake of argument, let's say you're exposed to six hundred ads a day. If nothing else, my spidey sense tells me that's a reasonable, if conservative, figure. And at that rate, you'd likely be exposed to more than 15 million ads in your lifetime. But this is all academic. The daily marketing onslaught would really hit home if you played this little game: imagine yourself trying to avoid exposure to any sort of advertising message—for just one day. Ready? Go!
Suppose you begin by fleeing your workplace, though not before stopping in the privy on the way out. What do you find? Ad posters on the walls by the sink and even in the stalls. Where gender appropriate, you'll find ads over the urinals or even in the urinals. One of my favourites was a pithy career-recruiting ad on a plastic mat in a urinal that read "Want to Be a Fireman?" And over at the sink, "admirrors" now project advertising from behind mirrors when you step up to wash your hands.
Escaping the washroom, you make for the elevator only to find . . . more ads. Not only are these high-rise sarcophagi home to poster ads; they're fast becoming home to one of the more popular new ad media: flat screen monitors that pipe ad-laced information "programs" to passengers in thousands of elevators, in hundreds of urban centres, to reach the five hundred or so people who might ride an elevator in a given office tower. Research reveals that advertising in elevators generates a remarkable 84 percent of "unaided recall"—a fancy-pants marketing term meaning that people can remember the ads without being prompted. Advertisers love elevator ads because they know they can reach specific business professionals, most of whom are seeking a place to focus their attention during the ride.
As the door opens, you run to the street and hail a cab—the one with the "HotJobs" ad on top, the special ad-covered hubcaps that remain level as the wheels spin, and the TV screen on the back of the front seat. As you escape the ad-infested city, you pass billboards, shop signs, posters in bus shelters, murals covering the sides of five-storey buildings, and people wearing sandwich boards. "Where to?" asks the cabbie in the Reebok cap. A voice deep within your psyche, recalling summers of peace and bliss, whispers a suggestion, which you promptly relay to the driver: "Take me to the beach." It's perfect. There you can relax with only the sun, the surf, the sand . . .
And the advertising. It's right there—under your bum: a message pressed repetitively into the beach by a sand-grooming machine. Years ago a New Jersey company called Beach'n Billboard found a way to impress repeated ad messages in the sand, including pleas that beach-goers refrain from littering. According to testimonials, littering has decreased by more than 20 percent, while the sponsored messages—for Snapple or Skippy peanut butter, for instance—help the municipality offset the cost of beach maintenance. In beach advertising, as in life, nothing is forever: by noon beach traffic typically wears away most of the ad imprints. But they'll be back in the morning.
Suppose you seek sanctuary in, well, a sanctuary, as in a place of God. You've got to imagine that there's nothing like a house of worship to provide an escape from the daily volley of ads, right?
Wrong. At least it would be wrong if you chose to seek refuge at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, an ancient church, which over the past few generations, had been showing its age. A few years ago, it became painfully evident that the building would require extensive, and expensive, restorations. Just imagine the elation when an Italian bank slipped ninety thousand euros into St. Anthony's collection plate. Wrapped, figuratively, around it was a caveat: in exchange for its contribution, the bank requested a favour. They wished to place a poster ad inside the basilica, effectively offering worshippers a rare opportunity to seek both eternal grace and a competitive rate on their next car loan. When viewed as a commodity, congregations put dollar signs in the eyes of cash-hungry churches, many of whom are seizing the opportunity. In thousands of places of worship across North America, the weekly bulletin—the program with the order of service in it—has become a popular vehicle for intracongregational sales pitches. A typical bulletin might include paid ads for local merchants and professionals, some from within the congregation, and for funeral homes, counselling services, mechanics, and home renovators. At least one church, in Munster, Indiana, has a Starbucks concession in the lobby, right beside the—I'm not making this up—"Heavenly Grounds" bookstore.
Many of North America's so-called "mega-churches" have little theological problem going forth and making disciples of all nations with the help of popular retail brands. Some have built compounds on large acreages, offering, in effect, Christian-themed shopping malls. Ironically, some of these monoliths have become so retail minded that they've opted to cancel services on Christmas Day.
ADS IN SPAAAAAAAACE
Suppose, in your quest to escape the clutter, you cut a cheque for a tidy $20 million, sign up as a space tourist, and lift off into the cold, dark, ad-free vacuum of space? Houston, you have a problem. Not only are there ads in space, but they've been there for some time. In 1993, when an American private-sector spacecraft lifted off, its side was emblazoned with a five-word ad: "Schwarzenegger: The Last Action Hero." It was one small step for a truly B-flat film and one giant leap for advertising. Yet even that wasn't the first ad in space: since 1990 the cash-strapped Russian space program has sold ad space on their Soyuz craft for everything from Sony electronics to—no kidding—Unicharm feminine hygiene products. Tnuva, an Israeli milk company, once filmed a TV spot aboard the Mir space station. On another occasion, crew aboard the Mir deployed an oversized Pepsi can into space.
Persuasion abhors a vacuum. Such is the proliferation of ad clutter that for years I've heard it said in jest that it's a matter of time before people start selling ad space on the insides of their eyelids. People don't laugh at that one quite the way they used to.
THE RISE OF AD AVOIDANCE
In 1956 Eugene McDonald, then president of Zenith, challenged two of his engineers, Robert Adler and Eugene Polley, to create a remote control that would operate a television from across a room. When the product was launched, the ad copy (in what can be called a suicide note of sorts) crowed: "Turns set on or off . . . turns sound on or off . . . changes channels . . . foolproof." It was remote TV tuning, according to McDonald, that fuelled Zenith's success the following year.
Almost unnoticed was a feature which few seem to have observed but which must have sent shock waves through the marketing world. It was the mute button. Finally, there was a way to eliminate the daily clutter of those "long, annoying commercials," and the age of "ad avoidance" was born—along with a substantial cottage industry to accommodate the new trend.
Nowadays, PVRs are programmed to skip TV commercials, "do not call" and "do not mail" lists promise—with limited success—to unsolicited marketing pitches. Peer-to-peer social networking, such as instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, allows us to bypass commercial radio stations and share music, information, and opinions directly. On-demand digital programming, gaming, Blu-ray and DVD technology, and music downloading are deposing commercially driven media from their traditional positions as entertainment gatekeepers. At the same time, software designers make a tidy living designing pop-up blockers and programs that detect and delete adware—and privacy legislators are scrambling, often in vain, to keep up with developments that are fundamentally altering the gathering, buying, and selling of consumer information. A kind of siege mentality has set in as those targeted by marketers try to build defences against the bullets. But as one section of wall is constructed to fend off new sales volleys, another is breached.
Humorist Colin McEnroe, speaking for today's ad-fatigued civilization, once wrote that he had a disturbing dream "in which I break through a cave wall near Nag Hammadi and discover urns full of ancient Coptic scrolls. As I unfurl the first scroll, a subscription card to some Gnostic exercise magazine flutters out."
THE DAWN OF CLUTTER
The first grumbling about ad clutter can be traced back to nineteenthcentury London, the granddaddy of "big" cities to emerge from the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the 1800s, fewer than a million people lived in the British capital, but by the end of that century, the population had grown sixfold, and during those years, sales messages began to dominate the urban landscape.
"Of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind," observed American statesman Henry Clay, "none is greater than that of competition." Easy to say, for a guy who didn't have to spend hot July mornings hawking mullet in London's Old Billingsgate fish market. Competition for the attention of London's growing population required—and still requires—stifling and often backbreaking work. In the Victorian age, merchants, tradespeople, and entrepreneurs swarmed the city, shouting to be heard over one another, and devising ingenious, if irritating, ways to make their presence felt. Trade cards grew in popularity. Bearing a tradesperson's name, and perhaps a map to his place of business, these precursors of modern junk mail were handed out and slipped under front doors. Other ads were pressed onto coins and tokens, printed on ship's sails, and posted inside "bathing machines"—the portable "privacy huts" women dragged around them when they sauntered into the ocean, lest any man should actually see their swimming attire. Posters were everywhere. Streets resounded to the noise of hawkers and the declamations of actors performing "tableau" ads as they were carted about on portable wagons.
Deep within the swirls of this commercial maelstrom, the Times felt duty bound to warn its readers about "the incessant witless repetition of advertisers' moron-fodder." That itself was bold talk for a great broadsheet that tucked world events neatly in beside box ads for "Gerolstein: a perfect table water. Recommended by the most eminent physicians" and A.S. Lloyd's Euxesis, "for shaving without soap, water, or brush, and in half the usual time." Ad-driven media have wrestled with the ethics of criticizing ads ever since, prompting David Ogilvy to write: "It strikes me as bad manners for a magazine to accept one of my advertisements and then attack it editorially—like inviting a man to dinner then spitting in his eye." I agree: while the editorial department should be separated from the ad department, I do bristle when radio announcers offer up a snide remark about a product, right on the heels of an ad for that very product. It's bad form, and a call to the sales department to complain usually results in an instant make-good (ad speak for a free ad to make up for the transgression). Advertising and programming have to live in peaceful co-existence, since after all, one can't survive without the other. But when the programming people do criticize the advertising, it is usually induced by the overabundance of ads crowding the content.
DAVID OGILVY: AD GIANT
David Ogilvy will appear many times in this book. He was one of the great, wise admen, founding one of the world's mightiest advertising agencies, Ogilvy & Mather. Remarkably, however, he didn't start his agency until he was thirty-eight. Born in England, he had been a door-to-door salesman, a chef, a researcher, and a tobacco farmer, but in 1949 he started an advertising agency in New York, backed by his elder brother's British agency, Mather & Crowther. Originally called Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, and later Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, then finally Ogilvy & Mather, the "Mather" part didn't really exist in New York. David was the sole turbine there. Ogilvy's agency enjoyed a meteoric rise on Madison Avenue, eventually becoming one of the biggest in America, and was sold for $864 million in 1989. Ogilvy died in 1999 at the age of eighty-eight. He held firm and articulate opinions on what it took to create effective advertising, and he knew he was gifted in the ways of persuasion. A magazine once wrote an article about him with the headline "David Ogilvy: Genius?" and Ogilvy later said he almost sued them for the question mark. He wrote extensively on the subject of advertising, and his words are quoted in every corner of the advertising world to this day.
NEW TECHNOLOGIES: NEW KINDS OF CLUTTER
Newspapers themselves would soon become leading purveyors of clutter. By the late nineteenth century, new-fangled typecasting machines made it easier to print more pages—and squeeze in more ads. Newspapers that had once published editions of four, eight, or twelve pages rapidly expanded to twenty-four, thirty-six, and even forty-eight pages. Today there's even more ad space available in most major newspapers, to the point where you need a forklift to pick up their weekend editions. Advertising is a great money maker for the owners of newspapers and magazines, whose rates can remain high no matter what the sizes of their publications, on the promise that advertisers will reach a given number of readers. But running an ad in a bulky paper is a raw deal for advertisers, who pay the same but find themselves crowded by a large number of rivals, each competing for the reader's attention. For advertisers, printing more ads is like a government printing more money: the more of it there is "out there," the less value each one has.
During the early twentieth century, it wasn't just the volume of advertising but also the intrusive nature of new ad media that escalated the ad-clutter crisis. When it became technologically possible for "telephones" to be installed in millions of homes, the devices were met with a growing unease about the "outside world" flooding in. Satirist Ambrose Bierce summed it up in this entry in his 1911 devil's dictionary:
An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
It's the world's loss that Mr. Bierce wasn't around long enough to define "telemarketer."
Ad clutter is a nuisance that became an annoyance, that blossomed into a full-blown media pandemic. While this is a problem for consumers, it's a catastrophe for the marketing industry, whose messages are muddled and lost within the growing din. The very onslaught of clutter is making the public immune to messages, as they have increasingly tuned them out to the point that it's now second nature for them to do so. Consumers' ad fatigue leads to an easy dismissal of most advertising and an appetite for ad-avoiding technology, such as PVRs. As their public tunes out, advertisers then heavy-up on media buys in heroic attempts to make sure their messages are heard. This, of course, has a negative effect, as their ads are buried under the very clutter they were hoping to avoid. They then resort to non-traditional methods of reaching the public, such as clever ambient marketing, but that only creates more clutter. Ad sellers, on the other hand, love ad clutter. With the increase of ad minutes per hour and the growing number of ad media, they rub their hands with glee as visions of sugarplum profits dance in their heads. In the end, the better you understand clutter from a marketer's perspective, the more clearly you'll see why, and how, the craft of persuasion is rapidly changing.
WHY ADVERTISERS REALLY, REALLY HATE CLUTTER
They may actually hate it more than you do. I'll show you what I mean. Imagine you're sitting alone in the sixth row of a large, empty sports stadium. Empty, that is, except for one other soul sitting directly across the field from you, who is also in the sixth row—just the two of you in this cavernous space. You cup your hands to your mouth and yell your name to that person as loudly as you can. After a moment the other person cups her hands to her mouth and yells her name back. Though your voices fade a bit during their journey, each is audible—and distinct.
Now imagine that you're in the same stadium, in the same seat, but this time it's filled to capacity. You and your friend are immersed in a sea of, say, 61,371 people. The stadium is alive with distractions: couples are squabbling, babies are crying, drunks in the cheap seats are singing, hundreds of people are on the phone, and a few are snoring. The public address system is blaring out anachronistic eighties pop ballads with a subatomically tiny lyrical connection to what's happening on the playing field. The true visual focal point is the giant TV scoreboard, restlessly cycling through replays, stats, and out-of-town scores. Up and down the aisles, an army of uniformed men and women hawk the virtues of cold beer and four-dollar pretzels. There's a palpable buzz. The air is thick and alive with sensory information; Las Vegas would be proud.
Again, you cup your hands to your mouth and yell your name to the person who is still sitting across from you. But first you have to work, methodically, just to find her. Once you do spot her, you begin to wonder how to get her attention through all the noises and distractions. Your monopoly on her attention has vanished: she's been swallowed in a sea of sound and imagery. And your real troubles are just beginning. As it happens, everyone else in the stadium—61,369 others—are also cupping their hands to their mouths and screaming their names as loudly as they can, all of them intent on diverting your friend's attention to them. Thousands of voices meld together in one large, chaotic roar.
Does it matter who wins? Absolutely. The jobs, perhaps the careers, of every single person in that crowd, including yours, hinge on your ability to win the attention of that one person across from you. Feel that? It's a drop of sweat dripping down against your coccyx. You begin to brainstorm ways that your voice could cut through all the noise and distractions. You could shout louder than anyone else: perhaps the distinct timbre of your voice would cut through the din. Perhaps an appealing visual would attract your friend's attention: you might don a chicken suit or your birthday suit or a bright red, strapless cocktail dress. Here's an idea: you could pay the stadium to silence everyone but you for ten seconds while you holler out your name. All are viable tactics, but the trouble is this: anything you can do, your 61,369 rivals can also do.
Before long you'll notice yourself cycling through a profound series of emotions. The initial panic becomes denial, which gives way to a sense of futility. Then you become philosophical and resolved as you roll up your sleeves and begin scheming ways of conveying your message through enemy lines. When your message does get through, you feel exhilarated and untouchable—that is, until you try again, and fail. On goes the roller-coaster ride as you alternate between born-on-Krypton invincibility and snake-bit, pack-your-things-and-turn-in-your-playbook, move-to-Brazil melancholy.
Meanwhile, the person you're trying to reach feels like the lone debutante at the Cowhands Ball: overwhelmed by the number of suitors who've come a-courtin'. Some she finds attractive, some offensive, some charming, some articulate; all are struggling for a place in her heart. She can be forgiven for wanting to hide, even if it means avoiding the few she favours in order to block out the many others she doesn't.
Seen this way, you can begin to understand the sense of desperation that drives marketers to extreme cynicism, and on the other side, extreme artistry. The less talented know that they can drop their pants—sometimes literally—to get noticed. They're advertising's answer to cotton candy: it's irresistible for a moment but has no lasting value.
In the upper floors of marketing are great minds who base extensive campaigns on great ideas. In England, for instance, a remarkable, decades-old campaign has been built on just one line: "Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach." Twenty years of award-winning ads, all made possible by the fertile ground of that stellar concept. Another enduring campaign idea was created for Michelin, who hit the motherlode when they put a cute baby together with the line "Because so much is riding on your tires." "Unless your advertising is based on a BIG IDEA," wrote David Ogilvy, "it will pass like a ship in the night." Ogilvy proved it with resonant campaigns for Pepperidge Farms, Rolls-Royce and Hathaway shirts.
Yet even for the best in the business, great ideas are elusive. As Ogilvy confessed: "I am supposed to be one of the more fertile inventors of big ideas, but in my long career as a copywriter, I have not had more than 20, if that." So very true. In a business where one person may create thousands of ads over a career, a top creative mind may generate fewer than twenty big ideas. That is not at all a criticism of ad people but rather a stark reminder of how incredibly difficult it is to create magnificent advertising.
OGILVY AND THE ROLLS
I have always loved Ogilvy's classic Rolls-Royce print ad with the headline "At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock." In a time when trite, glossy automotive ads ruled, it stood out as one of the few to assume intelligence on the part of the reader. The headline was completely intriguing, offering an enormous promise of upscale motoring without ever having to say it, and the copy that followed was charming, graceful, and informative—in short, a superb lesson in print advertising. Not long after that ad appeared, the Copywriters Hall of Fame made Ogilvy one of its first inductees, in 1961.
WHO KNEW? NOT EVERYBODY HATES AD CLUTTER
While consumers loathe ad clutter, and advertisers detest it even more, one group hopes it won't go away anytime soon: " ad-driven media." Broadcasters, publishers, out-of-home media companies, and Internet ad firms are the stadium owners in our metaphor. They are the ones who are profiting from today's ad explosion, and they are only too happy to increase the number of seats in order to accommodate growing demand—even if this means cramming their existing customers into smaller spaces. They reap financial gain from the consumers who are frustrated at having their attention parcelled and sold, and they make money from advertisers whose messages are devalued each time the clutter is allowed to grow. Ad-driven media are the arms dealers of marketing warfare, cheerfully selling time and space to all combatants: Reebok, Nike, and Adidas; Coors and Budweiser; Apple and Microsoft. An escalation in each war can only be good for business.
Of all the media, radio and television suffer most from ad clutter as programming is shrunk, subdivided, and busied by messages within messages. CP24, a news and information TV station in Toronto, is the poster child for an information-cluttered world. Where other news channels might scroll a steady stream of headlines or sports scores beneath their visuals, CP24 reserves a corner of the screen for an anchor reading the news, while the rest of the screen is filled with the date, time, current temperature, a graphic showing a four-day weather forecast, a traffic camera, another graphic showing major financial indices, two station logos (one at the top with the weather, another at the bottom), two—count 'em, two—stock tickers scrawling across the bottom, and yet another graphic rotating through the major headlines of the day. The screen might contain twenty pieces of detailed information at any one time, and that's before you count the audio. The screens of mainstream broadcasters are not as cluttered as this, but they do plant their ever-present transparent logos in one corner of the screen and shove program credits to one side so they can jam in station promos, a technique known in the industry as a "squeeze-back."
MAMA'S GOT A SQUEEZE-BACK
A squeeze-back is the practice of literally squeezing the end credits of a program to one side of the screen in order to use the other side to promote an upcoming show. Squeeze-backs were invented by NBC in the early nineties as a way to keep people from channel hopping. By squeezing the credits over and using the remaining space to tease viewers with what was coming up next, they found they could retain them and prevent the habitual end-of-show channel hopping. In Canada squeeze-backs were used for very different reasons. Networks were limited to twelve minutes of commercial time per hour, and any promo of an upcoming American program would count against the twelve minutes. But since a promo wasn't a "commercial," it didn't generate any revenue. For every American promo, Canadian networks therefore lost money. By moving the credits over, Canadian stations could promote an upcoming American show while the credits were running. And the promo wasn't counted against their allotted commercial time because the squeezed promo was inside the program time, not outside it.
Already there are signs that this message layering is rewiring young brains. Take stacking, for instance. Kids, including mine, are becoming expert at this process: they might have a TV on while listening to music on their iPod at the same time as texting on their phones, instant-messaging on a computer, and surfing the Internet. Advertisers have caught on to this phenomenon and employ what is known as "fully integrated" marketing. This means that a product promoted on TV will also be publicized through mobile phones, Internet ads, and websites, all in the hope that every touch point will converge in one single, sit-down, "stacking" experience.
In this spirit commercial broadcasters are doing some stacking of their own: "busying" their programming and, in doing so, stuffing more commercial messages into each hour. Radio stations are phasing out sixty-second commercials, making way for shorter, more lucrative ads. Similarly, TV broadcasters have shrunk programming to accommodate more ad messages per hour: an episode of Bonanza in the early 1960s typically ran fifty-two minutes, allowing eight minutes for ads, promos, and station identification. Forty years later, an episode of Desperate Housewives might run forty-four minutes.
Broadcasters have become wary of audience backlash as their programs shrink and their commercial offerings grow—though not wary enough to actually reverse the trend. Instead, some have introduced tricks to hold audiences in spite of extended program interruptions. Some networks have taken to breaking the conventions of time, running shows past the top or bottom of the hour, starting the next one at, say, 8:05, instead of 8:00 on the nose. The theory is that viewers sticking with a program to the end will find that shows on other networks have already begun. So rather than miss the beginning of those, they might as well come back to the network they were just on and pick up the show that starts at 8:05.
Desperate Housewives experimented with some ingenious parcelling of their story "acts"—the segments that appear between commercial breaks. In some episodes, their opening segment could run as long as twelve minutes before the titles rolled: four times the length of traditional TV "teaser" segments of the sixties and seventies. The idea was to pull viewers deep enough into the story that they would stay with it—especially since it would be too late to pick up the thread of shows on rival networks. Of course, what you don't pay now, you have to pay later, which is why Desperate Housewives offers six shorter acts between breaks rather than follow the convention of four longer ones. In fact, some acts ran as short as four and a quarter minutes—not much longer than the three-and-a-half-minute breaks that surrounded them.
It's a far cry from 1922, when Herbert Hoover, secretary of commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, oversaw the birth and early growth of the radio industry and warned "that so great a possibility as radio should not be . . . drowned in advertising chatter." And when television arrived in 1939, the government remained leery of commercials. For the first two years of TV in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not allow stations to make profits from commercials and in 1945, it issued guidelines in the form of a document called Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees (known as the Blue Book), which limited the amount of commercial airtime each station could have.
THE GREAT "WHO LISTENS TO RADIO" EXPERIMENT
At my own company, we try to tackle ad clutter with creativity. Once, for example, we were approached by a consortium of radio stations in Toronto to create a radio campaign to advertise . . . radio. They told us their salespeople were constantly hitting a wall with retailers when they tried to sell them ad time. Why the pushback? Apparently, retailers believed that nobody "really listens to radio." Yes, radios were on but only for background noise or music. So the consortium asked us to create a radio campaign that proved people do listen to radio and that creative radio spots could break through the clutter. It was a tall order, and failure would do more damage to radio than if we had left the matter alone. However, we came up with a novel idea. We created two fictional companies and advertised them. One was called Basil's Pre-Owned Warehouse. In this campaign, a slightly stiff store owner named Basil told listeners he could save them money by selling pre-owned items, such as pre-owned business cards and pre-owned monogram shirts. The other company, Cliffhanger Publishing, advertised whodunnit books, but we gave away the surprise ending of each book in every ad.
Here's the best part: hundreds of listeners started calling the radio stations that had broadcast these ads, complaining they couldn't find Basil's store anywhere. Still others called in to say they couldn't find the Cliffhanger books in bookstores. When we finally revealed that the two companies didn't exist, a local radio talk show dedicated its evening proceedings to a discussion of the events and had to extend the two-hour show to three hours to accommodate all the calls. And the next day, the Toronto Star ran a front-page article on our campaign. When all was said and done, we had accomplished two things: we'd proven that people do listen to radio and we'd truly broken through the clutter. A big idea, executed with skill, has a superb chance of prevailing.
In the U.S. and Canada, regulators have begun to remove the cap on the number of minutes per hour available for advertising. "You don't regulate what you don't have to," said Konrad von Finckenstein, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). "I don't see why we should regulate advertising. It's up to the Canadian consumer to decide with his remote how much advertising he wants to see."
The program interruptions don't end at commercials either. Closed caption "sponsorships" ("Closed captioning is made possible in part by . . .") aren't counted as advertising. Many TV stations crawl brand-related messages across the screen during a program to skirt around limits on hourly commercial content, and these are considered to be outside the traditional twelve to fourteen minutes of ad time per hour currently allowed.
Contrast that with an episode of Lux Radio Theatre in the 1940s. Lux would be mentioned in the introduction. Then Cecil B. DeMille would introduce that evening's radio play: very often an adaptation of a popular motion picture, with the screen actors reprising their roles. Thirty minutes later, the play would break for a pitch—a minute or two long—for Lux Toilet Soap. The play would then conclude, leaving room for one more pitch for Lux. In all, perhaps five minutes of the hour-long broadcast were dedicated to the sponsor—most notably, the single sponsor—which no fan of the show was likely to forget. Today an hour of TV might include messages from a dozen sponsors, any of whom might be ignored or forgotten.
Recently I heard an hour-long program on a local radio station: a mortgage broker had purchased the entire hour and was fielding phone calls from listeners about buying and financing real estate. It was like a live infomercial, except that the broadcast was punctuated with commercials from unrelated sponsors. Similarly, some TV commercials have ads within ads. A commercial for a restaurant chain, for instance, might show a customer with a Molson logo on his beer glass. This kind of incremental product placement only works over time, and needs the tonnage of repeated exposures to break through..
Too many ads are, themselves, cluttered internally with information. Automotive ads are among the worst culprits, jamming the screen with graphics, prices, features, and too often, lines of tiny, completely unreadable legal jargon. In print ads, this is known as "mouse type."
SQUEAKY LITTLE DETAILS: MOUSE TYPE
Mouse type is an industry term for the tiny, legal disclaimer lines found in many TV and print ads. These disclaimers are required by law if an offer has strings attached, but ironically, most TV ad disclaimers end up being much too small to actually read. In print ads the type size for such disclaimers is also incredibly small, but it's generally readable. In radio the equivalent would be the super-fast "Void where prohibited; must be eighteen years of age to participate" line, read in under two seconds. In the United States most legal disclaimers have to be fully spelled out in the ad, leaving a lot of American radio ads heaving under more than fifteen seconds of "asterisk-speak." In Canada a "See store for details" usually suffices and makes Canadian ads much more bearable for the listener.
Local radio sponsors often mistakenly treat their thirty-second commercial as an elevator pitch, to be stuffed with their name (three times, please), street address, Internet address, telephone number, and if time allows, what it is they're selling. When talking to clients and writers of such ads, I used the analogy of apples. If I have five apples in my hand and I throw them at you, chances are you're going to drop them. But if I have just one apple and I lob it to you, you'll likely catch it. So it is with information in today's overly cluttered media.
According to one media consultant, TV advertising will have lost one-third of its effectiveness between 1990 and 2010 because of rising costs, falling viewership, growing ad clutter, and commercial-avoidance technologies. But in recent years, some big-money sponsors have launched bold experiments in clutter busting. In October 2003, the Season 3 debut of 24 was sponsored solely by Ford, and it was "commercial free" if you chose not to count the lengthy ads before and after the show. You'd also have to ignore Ford's product-placement relationship with the series. Just as the bad guys in Ben Hur and Star Wars had British accents, in 24 the good guys drive Fords, while the bad guys drive GM vehicles. All the same, it was a rare moment in modern TV history for a single sponsor to provide an hour of programming. Even on America's "commercial-free" PBS, some programs include several fifteen-second plugs for retail brands, packaged as "funding for this program is made possible by" announcements.
For six weeks in the spring of 2006, a single sponsor—Snapple—underwrote all the programming on FNX FM in Boston. Traditional commercials were halted, in place of announcements that Snapple was sponsoring the broadcast, some Snapple-based banter from the announcers, and a few Snapple-centric station contests. One industry executive dubbed it "brandcasting"—a broadcast double whammy where clutter was tossed out to make way for messages aimed at young listeners. In spite of this new development, I wouldn't bet the farm that the "sole sponsor" trend will rescue our culture from ad clutter anytime soon: broadcasters are wary of giving so much control to a single advertiser, especially when there's more money to be made by selling the time piecemeal.
Credit the ad industry for this much: we adapt quickly. When we can't find a path to your imagination through conventional media, we start looking for another route.