Could changes in advertising kill television?

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 10 2009 12:07 PM

Is Television Over?

An intriguing new book about the ad recession's next victim.

If you love to hate ads, you might enjoy two new books that train their sights on modern marketing. The first makes the case that advertising as we know it is about to be obliterated. The second suggests that we should all dance a gleeful polka on its grave.

In The Chaos Scenario, Bob Garfield—ad critic for Advertising Age and co-host of the NPR show On the Media—argues that the long-standing, two-way partnership between advertising and content is due for a violent rejiggering. This notion is a familiar one by now, but Garfield asserts that the big ad agencies and media companies haven't yet managed to fully internalize it. (Particularly television networks, which have so far weathered the storm in a way that newspapers haven't.) Garfield also claims that the painful consequences of this upheaval will extend to you, the content consumer. You've probably already noticed the punishing body blow delivered to your local newspaper after once-lucrative advertising niches such as classifieds and real estate got eaten by the Internet. Garfield's feeling is that your beloved television shows will soon meet a similar fate.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

There are now hundreds of cable channels and any number of captivating items to look at on the Web. As a result, the television audience is scattering. In 2008, Garfield notes, a top-rated TV drama like The Mentalist might have been watched by 3.2 percent of the U.S. population in a given week. Fifty years ago, a top drama like Gunsmoke would have been routinely watched by three times as many Americans percentagewise. It's much harder these days for a major advertiser to find the concentrated mass of eyeballs it needs to reach in order to boost its sales numbers. Garfield argues that those most affected by this sea change haven't yet faced up to the new reality.

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Television networks, for example—which, though not as widely watched as they used to be, are still the only place to go to find eyeballs in any concentration at all—have so far been able to keep revenues relatively intact by charging higher rates per viewer while reaching fewer viewers. The rug is due to be pulled out from under them. The upshot, in Garfield's view: a vicious cycle in which television audiences fragment, so advertisers stop paying big bucks to run commercials on TV shows, so the funding for the shows dries up, so the quality of the shows declines, so the audience begins to flee even faster.

I'm not sure I buy the part about quality playing a role in audience behavior. Not when a show like The Bachelorette is a ratings winner. (Garfield might argue that even tripe like this offers network-level production values and thus requires a production budget that soon won't be sustainable.) But it seems reasonable to assume that advertisers will at some point refuse to pay hefty fees to capture ever-shrinking slices of the population. Eventually—and in fact, it's already happening—they'll find other uses for their marketing dollars.

This means there will be no one to foot the bill for your favorite high-quality show, unless 1) it's on a premium channel like HBO, where the revenue comes from subscriptions instead of ads, or 2) it's a bunch of webisodes, made on a shoestring, that air on YouTube and don't require a deep-pocketed sponsor. For now, 1 is much more likely than 2. While there's no doubt some terrific low-budget stuff that's being made for the Web—and this stuff will certainly get better and better—at this point, not a lot of it compares to The Wire. Or, for that matter, The Mentalist. (To paraphrase a joke I recently heard somewhere: What do you call a homemade video that holds your attention for 20 minutes? A celebrity sex tape.)

It all portends chaos for the television industry. But Garfield foresees equal tumult in store for the big-time ad agencies. He predicts the gradual demise of the classic, 30-second TV spot, which has been the lifeblood of major agencies for half a century. His prescription: Advertising will need to be less about displaying hip imagery and implanting mood associations and more about interacting with consumers online, analyzing their complaints and desires (as revealed in their blog posts and Web site comments), and providing utilitarian information to those who seek it out.

This approach, which Garfield dubs "listen-omics," may well turn out to be a more effective method of marketing. But there's also far less money in it. To illustrate this point, Garfield relates an anecdote about the Six Flags theme park deciding to give away 45,000 tickets as a promotion for its 45th anniversary. They told their big ad agency to figure out the logistics. Once upon a time, the agency might have spent lots of time and resources creating radio spots or billboard ads, and then securing placements for them, to make the public aware of the free tickets. Instead, recognizing the new reality, the agency just typed up a little blurb on Craigslist. The tickets were gone in five hours. Worked great, but as one of the agency executives subsequently wondered: How do you bill the client for that?

The thought of a scared and confused ad exec would no doubt delight Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky, editors of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. Many of the essays in this compilation originally appeared in Stay Free!—a zine, and later a Web site, that McLaren launched in 1993. The unifying theme: a deeply held suspicion, verging on primal fear, of marketing's quest to creep into every corner of our lives.

I can get weary of earnest, anti-consumerist droning. (I'm looking at you, Adbusters.) But Ad Nauseam manages to serve up its paranoia with a light and funny touch. It begins by tracing the evolutionary arc of persuasive advertising, from the stuffy pedantry of the 1800s to the "science"-laden claims of the 1920s through the 1940s to the eventual disappearance of text and arguments in favor of striking, emotional images. Another essay ridicules moments of sudden, radical brand repositioning, noting, for instance, that Marlboro cigarettes were first targeted at women before the company settled on a rugged, manly image. The book also recounts some dark chapters in marketing history, including Coca-Cola's successful effort to get Olive Garden to stop serving free tap water and instead push soft drinks on its patrons.

At all times, the goal is awareness. The underlying assumption is that consumerism has so pervaded our surroundings that it's vital to step back and assess just what it is we're up against. As McLaren posits in her introduction, decades of sophisticated, ubiquitous marketing have turned us all into "fish who can't see the water."

Both The Chaos Scenario and Ad Nauseam provide entertaining material for armchair marketing scholars and ammunition for sworn advertising haters. Ultimately, though, they come from opposite tacks. Consider the recent revelation, on the official Google blog, that a cute home video of a choreographed entrance dance at a Minnesota wedding managed to double typical YouTube advertising click-through rates and also dramatically boost sales of a year-old R&B single. The Ad Nauseam folks might see this as the latest outrage—now even our wedding videos are fuel for the marketing juggernaut. Bob Garfield, on the other hand, might view this as a step in the right direction.