The New Ad Age

You see them in the strangest places: airplane tray-tables, the sleeve of your latte cup, the electronic readout of your gas pump, the walls of your local post office. They are hidden in plain sight in your favorite TV show and movies. They call you at home and on your cell phone. They e-mail you. They are in your mailbox.

It's not news that we're seeing more ads these days. In fact, there are so many ads all around us, people may have stopped paying attention.

It's the basic conundrum of marketing. You have to advertise to compete in the marketplace, but the more ads there are, the more people tune them out, so you have to continually find newer, brighter, shriller ways to get attention.

Meanwhile, as the advertising industry devises new ways to get its messages across, technologies are continually being developed that make it possible for people to skip or avoid ads. Online, you can use browsers like Firefox, which blocks pop-up ads. You can fast-forward previews on DVDs (as you have been able to do for 20-some years with videocassettes). You can skip commercials with TIVO (as, again, you have been able to do with shows taped on video). You can even share movies or TV shows online, ad-free.

These attempts to skip commercials offend some television executives.

When we watch ads, we become the media's workforce," says Sut Jhally, author, media critic and founder of the Media Education Foundation. "They are, in effect, organizing our time. They have even said that there is an implicit contract with the audience. If a person chooses to watch a movie or TV, they say it's immoral to skip the ads."

Legislating for Control

On all fronts, media companies are trying to make sure that we follow that contract. Among other things, they are trying to influence legislation to secure that we don't break our part of the deal.

The most recent example of this was the Family Movie Act (FMA), which was introduced to Congress last year. Originally, this bill, sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), was pro-consumer. It was written to protect the right of individuals to fast-forward questionable content on DVDs, like sex scenes or violence. The trouble started when a clause appeared in the bill that implied that consumers could skip anything they wanted on a DVD – except for the ads.

After the FMA attracted media attention, the section protecting ads was dropped, according to Art Brodsky, spokesperson for Public Knowledge, one of the consumer-interest groups that opposed the FMA. The bill, which was bundled with a larger copyright act, died at the end of last year's legislative session.

But how did the pro-ad clause get into the bill in the first place?

"The movie industry put the additional language in," says Brodsky. "You've got to remember how things work in Washington. The lobbyists work very closely with the legislator. The content companies write language for parts of bills and then they just hand it to the senators."

Though consumer advocates are calling the fact that the pro-ad language was dropped from the Family Movie Act a victory, they are quick to point out it was just one of many battles. Other changes in legislation may restrict consumer rights even further.

For example, in November 2003, the FCC ordered that all digital video recorders, like TIVO, manufactured after July 2005 must be able to receive the broadcast flags that will be sent along with digital television transmissions. Broadcast flags are bits of code that will tell recording devices whether a consumer can reproduce a program. Under this system, the networks will control whether people can record their favorite shows or, if they can, how many times they can copy it.

No one knows how the media companies will use broadcast flags, exactly. Some speculate that they will start with services like pay-per-view or pay-channels like Showtime. Even so, consumer advocates say there's nothing stopping all networks from adopting the practice eventually.

Broadcast flags would give networks unprecedented control over how people watch TV. For example, cable channels would be able to prevent people from file-sharing their programs by restricting how many times they can be copied. People who may find themselves unable to record their favorite shows will be more likely to buy the series on DVD. And, if a network could potentially control whether or not someone can record a show, they could also control whether that person could fast-forward the commercials.

Though broadcast flags will only apply to HDTV – high definition TVs – the FCC is planning to completely switch over to HDTV by 2007. After that date, any TV that is not a HDTV will be unable to receive broadcasts, and therefore become obsolete. If the rules remain in place, people will be forced to switch over to the new system in less than two years.

A group of consumer-rights organizations, including Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has filed a lawsuit challenging the FCC on broadcast flags.

"We don't think they have the right to enforce them on people," says Brodsky. "But anytime content industries think [they] can assert control over what consumers can do with digital media, they will try it."

Resisting Change

TIVO, with its slogan "TV your way," promised to give people control over when and how they watch TV by allowing them to easily record shows and fast-forward commercials. Advertisers and networks responded with pressure on TIVO to try to force it to become more compatible with their business model. Originally, TIVO came with a 30-second fast-forward button for skipping ads. That disappeared soon after the product came onto the market in 1999.

Recently, TIVO announced that soon, when viewers fast-forward through commercials, banner ads will pop up. If viewers click the ads, their contact information will then be downloaded to the advertisers. TIVO is also collecting information based on what TIVO users watch. In fact, according to the L.A. Times, TIVO played the market researcher role in Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” last year, reporting that replays of the incident increased 180 percent from normal viewing patterns.

TIVO did not return calls about this article.

Still, TIVO is seen as one of the factors putting pressure on advertising these days. Another factor is the sheer number of entertainment options available. People are abandoning traditional network TV for, say, surfing the internet or watching shows on pay channels like HBO. As a result, advertising on traditional network TV has become less relevant.

"We're always going to look at the 30-second spot as the backbone of advertising," says Mary Hilton of the American Advertising Federation. "But with more competition for people's time, we have had to focus on effective strategies to break through the clutter and accept that this is the new advertising landscape."

To combat these changes, TV networks have been testing new waters. For one, more time – an average of 17 minutes – is devoted to ads in any given hour of TV than in the past. Commercials are regularly turned up louder than regular programming to grab viewer attention. Banners stream through the bottom of movies or flash in the corner. And, increasingly, ads are bleeding into programming. Product placement is now common.

For example, NBC's reality show “The Restaurant” was funded entirely by product placement of three companies: The restaurant owner drove a Mitsubishi SUV, offered his customers Coors beers to drink, and was continually grateful to American Express for financing his restaurant.

Products are even sponsoring episodes. Two years ago, Fox's drama “24” launched a high-profile ad campaign with Ford that involved a special uninterrupted first-episode that began and ended with a two-minute ad for the car company. Kiefer Sutherland also thanked Ford for their support at the beginning of the episode and characters drove Ford cars throughout the episode and in episodes after that. Other sponsorships are more stealthy. In the last season of the teen melodrama “Dawson's Creek,” which ended in 2003, the cast of the love-advice radio show Loveline came on the show as themselves and helped the characters with their problems. Another episode centered around the characters going to a No Doubt concert.

Some say product placement degrades the quality of programming, particularly in the cases where the plot of an episode surrounds one particular product, or when characters spend time talking about a product.

But others see product placement is just par for the course.

"Programming has always been about finding the right environment for ads," says Jhally. "Advertising is about the dream-life of a culture. It draws upon really deep-seeded desires people have, and the programs have to provide the context for the ads to sell well."

But while TV has always been about advertising, that has not always been the case for movies, believes Jhally. If the message of advertising is to imply that qualities like happiness, sex, power, wealth and fame can somehow be gained through buying material goods, as advertising becomes more common in movies, how will that affect the way studios choose to present a script?

"If you define culture as the place society tells stories about itself, then to some extent advertisers are controlling that realm more and more," says Jhally. "That shouldn't surprise anyone. But it's good to think about what happens when one group controls the culture, which from a democratic standpoint is troubling."

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