Some see the web as a total game-changer. A 360-degree paradigm shift. It may well be, when we’re all brains in jars looking back on it hundreds of years from now. But right here, in the middle of it, it looks a lot like a lurching, spurting evolution.
Newspapers didn’t disappear the moment the web got popular. Only now, in 2009, is the industry collapsing — and doing so in slow motion. I see similar painful evolution elsewhere in the mediasphere, and I think it’s tied up in what the web changed about advertising. How the relationship between advertising and movies is evolving is my main concern.
A riddle: When is an ad not an ad?
If a recent study is to be believed, having ads interrupt your content can actually improve the experience of watching it. Huh?
Keep in mind that this study used some classic television shows that were designed, presumably, around commercial breaks. Also, it probably wasn’t the ad that improved the content, it was the interruption:
[T]he authors suggest that the breaks themselves (and not necessarily the commercials they contain) can have a positive influence on viewers. Extended exposure to anything, even very enjoyable experiences, leads people to adjust to them–basically, good becomes the new normal.
This makes sense to me. I’ve just started watching the first season of Lost on DVD and it is odd to have those cliffhangers that fade to black and, instead of a toothpaste commercial, it fades right back up on the same scene. I’ve noticed that I’ll take a bathroom break in the middle of a scene that is boring me rather than wait for one of these quick fades to black and pause the show.
Would the show seem better all the way around if it was sandwiched between some irrelevant ads? Sure, that seems reasonable. In fact, we might hypothesize that B-stories and C-stories, side plots, evolved as a way to make the A-story, the main plot, more exciting. Viewed in terms of interruption, cutting to some tangential characters is one way to build suspense and provide a contrast to the central narrative.
But that’s a digression. Back to our regularly-scheduled discussion of ads.
Mea Culpa Ad Nauseum
I certainly know that I do my best to avoid ads. I don’t watch any live t.v. and I fast-forward them on the DVR. (If the DVR companies had left their :30 skip buttons on the remotes, I’d be using them.) I don’t read print ads and I try to glance past web ads, and only rarely click on them. The ads that reach me best are the ones in some of my regular podcasts, although I’ve noticed myself getting impatient with them and fast-forwarding them if I have my hands free.
Nevertheless, I can’t avoid ads. When I’m driving — too often, dwelling in LA — I’m in ‘scanning mode.’ I read traffic signs and I read billboard ads. In fact, I actively look for signage that seems to have unintentional religious and political overtones. I’ll admit — ads reach even me, a veteran ad-avoider.
It’s a commonplace to remark that relevant ads are not seen as ads. I think we can sharpen that old saw. Let’s change it to ‘useful ads are viewed positively,’ and make special note that entertainment can be useful, especially if you’re in a state of mind where you’re ready to be entertained.
Google got a good start on the relevance aspect, by mercilessly matching ads to content. And they do use some algorithms to sort out which ads are effective, although only from the perspective of Google and the advertiser, not always from the perspective of usefulness of the ad to the individual reader.
Trailers Are Trailers, Not Ads
Movies have a big ad-vantage. People see movie ads as useful. The main piece of advertising for a movie is the trailer and people like trailers. They actively seek them out, which you can’t say about most ads.
Why is a trailer considered so useful? I think it boils down to two main reasons: 1) Trailers are useful in determining whether a movie will be worth seeing, and 2) Trailers tell an entertaining story.
That trailers often reveal major plot points or even the ending to a movie is no accident. Movie marketers wouldn’t do this if it didn’t put butts in seats. Telling the story of the movie is often helped by revealing important plot information, and storytelling is the key to a trailer’s effectiveness.
I think we can all agree that we’d rather see the premise of a movie and a few teases of later moments without having big surprises ruined, which is one of many reasons why ‘high-concept’ movies are the bread-and-butter of the Hollywood system. (Well, high-concept franchise movies.)
Another reason is that, in a :30 tv spot, there’s even less time to tell the story. You need a short, easy-to-grasp premise to hook people in.
So how does a filmmaker with an unconventional story collect a mass audience? Either they aggregate a bunch of small interest-based groups, or… well, they don’t even try to get a big audience. Better to go back to the drawing board and make your story more compelling.
There’s no reason that a low-budget indie with a high-concept story couldn’t go head-to-head with a Hollywood blockbuster and win. In some sense, the story is the ad.
Let me explain. If the story is compelling to a mass audience, a trailer, t.v. spot or what-have-you need only tell the story to appear useful. It’s useful to know the name of movie that looks like one you’d like, it’s useful to know a story that many other people will be watching, whether you’ll be watching it or not, and it’s useful to have some quality entertainment while you’re waiting for the start of the movie you paid to see.
Trailers have taken over the pre-feature slots that were once the province of shorts. They are short films of sorts, albeit ones designed to get you to see a long-form version of the same story.
I don’t think I’m the first to suggest that studios invest in shooting trailers for possible movies to test audience reaction. Producers already do this in their heads — and they do it cheaper than shelling out to shoot a trailer that will include the ten most expensive shots of a movie. Producers ask themselves, what would this pitch or script look like as a trailer? Will it play in Peoria?
Don’t Touch That Dial
When is an ad not an ad? In some sense, never. Ads A.B.S. – Always Be Sellin’. But when it serves some use, whether that is in providing a welcome interruption, information or entertainment, then the ad has intrinsic value. It’s an ad you don’t skip – it’s one you seek out. Survival of the fittest. These are the ads that are going to flourish in the web epoch.
I declare a new name for this sort of ad. It’s not an advertisement, it’s a subvertisement — because it subverts the expectations of the viewer, simply by being not just relevant, but useful. I’ve devised a method of integrating such ads into content, which I will soon demonstrate.
Or be experimenting with. Demonstrate, experiment… whatever. Not every mutation is adaptive and I can’t predict whether these ideas will join the meme pool. But stay tuned to this space, because come October, I plan to subvert the hell out of some advertising.