Thursday, September 27, 2007

All Ads, All the Time

When I was young (5 years old) my family moved to Germany. We lived there for two years (and knew it would be that short when we went). We didn't speak German (well, my dad had taken a crash course for work) and I didn't learn it then (though I studied it extensively later); my sister and I went to an American school and generally had a little American bubble around us, though we lived in a small town surrounded by German neighbors.

And we watched German television, though not much. There was children's programming - cartoons and the like - which, though German, was understandable because the humor was visual. There was one striking difference between German television at the time and American TV - the commercials. They didn't interrupt the program every ten or fifteen minutes; you'd watch a program, and then it would be followed by a large block of advertisements.

We watched the ads, partly because it was all the same to us - images and words we didn't understand - and partly because after every couple of ads, there were cartoons featuring a set of repeating charachters - little guys wearing caps who'd do funny thing. (I cannot remember what they were called, and if anybody does, please tell me!) We had little plastic dolls of those characters. They were apparently quite popular. They were the hook to get viewers to sit there and watch ads for toothpaste and detergent. It apparently worked.

I thought about that when I read this post from Joseph Jaffe about Firebrand, which launches next month. From their press release:

Firebrand, the new, opt-in entertainment and marketing destination that gives consumers interactive access to their favorite brands, products and promotions, today announced plans for its October 22nd launch.

Firebrand programs the “coolest” TV commercials the way MTV used to program music videos, creating the first multi-platform network to go “live” simultaneously on TV, the web and mobile.

Firebrand’s "Commercials as Content" programming launches on the ION Television Network, weeknights at 11 pm in 94 million households, as well as 24/7 on the web at and, on hand-held mobile devices, initially through iTunes, and MSN when available.

Advertising is, of course, a bit part of our shared popular culture. That's actually nothing new; look at the the popularity of old ad posters, the number of jingles stored in all of our heads, and so on. When advertising is interesting, entertaining, or artistic, people enjoy it.

At the same time, if you start asking consumers if they like watching ads, I think you'll get a lot of negative responses. That's an unintentional lie, though; people tell you they don't like ads because so many of them are forced on us, and are not very interesting or entertaining.

Firebrand has some big investors (Microsoft, NBC, GE) and is going full-on with the ads-as-content approach; there will be "commercial jockeys" presenting the ads, web tools for users to create playlists of their favorite ads, and so on. And, of course, services for advertisers:

Firebrand will also provide advertisers with the Firebrand Dashboard TM, an innovative diagnostic tool that integrates industry standard television and online response data. For the first time, advertisers can see TV viewing and online clicks side by side, for specific spots and offers, delivering advertisers a meaningful ROI analysis.

The curmudgeon in me sees this as a sign of the death of our culture, but my inner cranky old man is wrong; as I said, commercial content as cultural artifacts is as old as communications itself. But what I do wonder about is the balance here. People like seeing ads, but they don't like being forced to see them. I wonder how they will feel about choosing to go to a destination that promises nothing but ads, versus encountering ads in places they are going for other reasons (a favorite television program, YouTube, and so on).

The language of the press release is all about the advertiser, and not the user: "connecting consumers with their favorite brands." I don't think most consumers really want to "connect with brands," though they might enjoy watching ads that are amusing.

If nothing else it will be useful for people like me, who watch very little television and skip ads when they do, to find out what people are talking about when they say, "You know that commercial...." (I finally once had to say, "No. I haven't watched a commercial in several years." Other than for professional reasons.)

And perhaps the "CJs" will take be a bit like those German cartoon characters whose names I'm trying to remember (you know what will be in the back of my mind all day today!).

Will people really want to watch and visit Firebrand? I'm not sure, but it will be interesting to find out.

Side note: Those two years in Germany, young as I was, had a surprising influence on me. Because we didn't watch a lot of television then, I became more verbal than visual and developed my lifelong long of reading; had we been home, I don't know if I'd be the voracious reader I am today. Ours was never a big TV household, and to this day I find a television on somewhere in the house a bit like having a buzzsaw going somewhere in the house; if I'm not watching a specific program that I really want to see, it gives me a headache. My ideal night at home is everyone sitting reading.

It gave me an ear for German, tremendously helpful when I began studying it a few years later. It means I went to a lot of great places that I don't remember well because I was so young; there were many dinner table conversations along the lines of, "Don't you remember when we went to the Alps?" "No, I remember sitting in the car saying, "Are we there yet?" And it gave me a life-long appreciation for Germany, a country where I'd happily live.


aaron@firebrand said...

Thanks for the post John. You speak of balance and I think Firebrand offers that. Though the spots are in an arranged programmed flow, viewers can opt out of that and click through to the brands, ads or even celebs they may want to see. I think there are a lot of brand fans out there who will appreciate a place where they can get quality ads of their favorite brands.

Maureen Rogers said...

John - I think I'm more in the camp of your inner curmudgeon. Yes, ads are part of the cultural fabric of society. (I have a couple of those fruit and vegetable box labels framed and on the walls of my kitchen.) But I do think that this is one more piece of evidence that increasingly we are not viewed or valued as human beings, or citizens, but for our true value: that of consumer. Thus we have kids TV shows that are little more than tie-ins to all sorts of products.(In the old days, the products used to be the tie-ins: now it's the shows.) We have product placements in movies and TV shows. And, after 9/11, we had the President of the United States telling us that the best thing we can do to fight terrorism is to go shopping.