And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

31 10 2010

I suppose it all started with Seinfeld. Without doubt, Seinfeld is one of the most iconic of all TV sitcoms, and yet it admittedly was a show about nothing. It revolutionized the way sitcoms are written and shot. Each episode had a stand-alone theme, but with three and sometimes four story arcs meandering through the fabric, stitched together with those trademark thumpy bass riffs. Oh yeah…and it all managed to fit into about 22 minutes (what’s left after you remove the commercials).

If anything, Seinfeld ushered in the era of ADHD on TV. It bounced around so quickly you dare not step out of the room for a beer lest you miss something funny going on with Elaine. Amazingly, by the end of the show, it all came together and Jerry tied the story knot. But your brain was just a little tired from being stretch in so many directions in such a short period of time.

Seinfeld’s impact is now being felt in the world of TV advertising, with commercials having shrunk first from 60 seconds to 30, and now down to 15 seconds. If you feel like you are being yanked around every time you watch primetime, you are not imagining things.

There are a number of factors at play here. Marketers now correctly assume that we 21C citizens have very short attention spans, that our lives have become like Seinfeld episodes of old. The only things missing are those quirky bass riffs to serve as segues from one seemingly random idea to another. If you feel like a pinball ricocheting between the bells and bumpers, you are not imagining things. Our lives have become as disjointed as those of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer.

But there are other good reasons why commercials are becoming shorter. One is cost. The economy has made it difficult for companies to advertise, and media to sell ad time. The 15-second burst is perfect. While the cost-per-second is about the same as for longer spots, the shorter versions allow companies a chance to at least put their name before the viewing public.

But there is another fact working here as well, and that is repetition. The assumption (and it is one based soundly on theory) is that repetition is good, and that it takes numerous exposures before people finally pay attention, remember, and then act. Short ads allow companies with sufficient ad budgets to scatter many seeds, and in some very creative case, even wrap their ads around others, all during a 75-second commercial break.

So while our lives may read like the fabled 90s sitcom, and economic expediency may dictate the terms, the truth of the matter is that short, repetitive bursts may actually serve their purpose better than less frequent long ads.

The only problem I see, though, is an increasing clutter. If everyone is doing it, then there will be hundreds of voices in the air, all screaming in short, calculated outbursts. And just like we quickly immunized ourselves against ubiquitous banner ads a decade ago, we may very well find ourselves doing the same today. In the era of the DVR, we are already zipping and zapping our way through ads as it is, and a 15-second message could be practically obliterated in 8X speed as we skip forward.

I can only imagine the ads of the future: 5-second screams, repeating every 15 seconds, at triple the volume of the regular show. Have a Coke. Eat Cheerios. Drive Toyota. Have a Coke. Sale at Target. Red Robin…Ummmm! Have another Coke.

It’s enough to make my already addled ADHD brain tired just thinking about it. I can’t handle any more bass riffs. I can’t process any more story arcs. I can’t handle Kramer sliding in unannounced.

All this noise is about to convince me that, instead of a cornucopia of meaning, we have devolved into a commercially nihilistic reality. Nietzsche would be proud. It’s time to head down to the diner for some lunch.

Now that’s a story arc I can stomach.

Dr “It All Ads Up” Gerlich

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