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Tripping the Tube Fantastic

It’s become conventionally cool among some forward-thinking marketers to say that television is no longer as important as it used to be and that advertising on television has lost its punch. That just isn’t true. Our lives continue to revolve around television, and television advertising persists as arguably the most powerful way to build a brand. It just depends on what your definition of “television” is — and your definition of “advertising,” too.

It’s become conventionally cool among some forward-thinking marketers to say that television is no longer as important as it used to be and that advertising on television has lost its punch. That just isn’t true.

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Our lives continue to revolve around television, and television advertising persists as arguably the most powerful way to build a brand. It just depends on what your definition of “television” is — and your definition of “advertising,” too.

To a group of students at St. Martins College in London, “television” is the label on a bottle of wine. “Advertising” is a short film about the wine within, how its grapes were grown, the wine bottled, and suggestions on how to pair it with food. This wine bottle as television is just in prototype, of course. But it has been patented by Hardys, the vintner that commissioned the design. It may be on the shelf sooner than we’d think.

To TrueFire, a St. Petersburg, Florida, concern that markets online guitar tutorials, “television” is a new kind of email it calls “BrowserMail.” By connecting the dots between permission-based email and RSS, TrueFire’s “b-mail” lessons are delivered directly to subscribers’ Web browsers. This makes it possible to “advertise” TrueFire’s latest offerings with full-motion videos, something that can’t be done with traditional email.

To DigitalView, a London-based company that also has offices in New York and California, “television” is a flat-panel screen that’s small enough to fit right on the shelf at a supermarket, or consumer electronics store. Stuart Armstrong, the company’s coo, says “advertising” on this medium is “decisionvision,” because, he says, it influences shoppers at the moment their purchasing decisions are being made.

To Emergency Medical Systems Inc. of White Pigeon, Michigan, “television” is a defibrillator. Who knew? In August, the company announced EMS-TV, a kiosk-based satellite network that combines life-saving, automated external defibrillator devices with full-motion video advertising, as well as branded health information, coupons, rebates, and other promotions.

That television — and television advertising — might double as a life-saving device actually is only mildly surprising, given that television’s mesmerizing stare already rivets us at just about every turn. You can find television on elevators, gas pumps, and ATMs; in stadiums and restrooms; aboard airplanes; and last, but certainly not least, on our laptops and desktop computers.

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Odd part is, many of the very talented people who create the very best advertising can’t seem to break free of the notion that television is something we watch only passively, normally at home — and that advertising is something that varies mostly only in terms of length.

Granted, it is not that advertising’s best and brightest haven’t taken their talents to the interactive realm of the Internet, or what some are calling the outernet (the many digital satellite networks that drive television programming outside the home). Honda created an online sensation with its now-famous cog commercial, and BMW enjoyed a broad wave of buzz with its fabulous mini-films. And who among us did not love the Seinfeld-Superman “Webisodes” brought to us by American Express?

Each of those brands almost certainly built their images and may even have generated some sales somewhere along the line. But, honestly, did their innovations amount to anything more than putting extra-long, high-quality television commercials on the Internet? No, not really.

Marketers may now be running their television commercials online — or perhaps even at your local Wal-Mart — but their work still pretty much quacks like duck. For the most part, marketers continue to define their brands by the 30-second television commercials they make.

Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few, and the short list is becoming a little too predictable: Apple, Starbucks, JetBlue (which, as we all know, made putting television sets on its headrests the linchpin of its successful launch). Point is, the apparently widely held assumption that the medium need not affect the message really should get a bit more scrutiny than most folks seem to be giving it so far.

May I indulge in little bit of Marshall McLuhan here? Oh, good. McLuhan, as you’ll recall, said TV was “cool” (and you know it still is after all these years) because of its “fuzzy… mosaic-like image, which leaves a lot of details to be filled in by those who watch it.” It’s that vague quality, he suggested, that makes television a “participant” medium.

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and attempt to interpret what McLuhan was talking about and apply it to today’s modern world. He seemed to be suggesting that television is not a passive (i.e., lean back) medium, as is popularly believed, but an active (i.e., lean forward) medium. If that’s what he was saying, then I agree — and additionally submit that the theory that television is a “participant” medium is central to the future of television and advertising.

It is central because it points its nose right at the bullseye of marketing — accountability, or ROI as it is popularly called these days. Here’s the problem: If marketing, for all intents and purposes, is television advertising, and television advertising cannot truly be linked to measurable outcomes (in terms of brand image, equity, or sales), then marketing is not accountable. It gets no respect from the CEO, so the CMO gets fired, and the marketing budget is re-deployed to something more accountable, like the company picnic, for example.

In this scenario, television is the criminal, in large measure because, among other shortcomings, it is, as we all know, a passive medium that has little, if anything, to do with making cash registers go “ka-ching.”

Well, that just isn’t so if you appreciate what those students did with that wine bottle, what Truefire is developing with b-mail, how DigitalView is working with retail television, and the way EMS-TV has improved, yes, defibrillators. They take a new view of “television” as a supremely relevant medium that is rarely out of sight, and of “advertising” as a discipline that doesn’t assume its viewers are necessarily leaning back as passive receptors of well-crafted story lines and emotional appeals.

When “television” is whatever we decide we want it to be and its “advertising” involves and informs and incites us as much as it entertains, engages, and emotionalizes us, the myth that marketing is not accountable will go the way of Mr. Whipple.

Television is dead. Long live television!

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