We can’t live without it, so lets rethink television advertising

With the count down to switching off analogue television in Australia officially started, the digital bandwagon is gathering renewed momentum with a swath of advertising from both the federal government and Freeview, a consortium of existing free to air broadcasters.

Watching from the sidelines it looks like the combined federal government and Freeview campaigns only appear to be creating confusion in the media and no doubt for the average television viewer. In response there is even a pretty cynical parody video of Freeview’s advert on YouTube.

One of the major criticisms of Freeview (also hinted at in the parody video) is their attempt to restrict consumer access to ad skipping technology in digital video recorders (DVR) through the licensing conditions for Freeview-endorsed equipment. Of course, more savvy consumers will simply pick unendorsed but compatible DVRs, which raises the question of why bother in the first place?

Personally I’m not anti-advertising. I can actually understand the dilemma of the local free-to-air television industry – while the ABC and SBS are government funded (but paid for by the community through the tax system), all the other channels (also SBS partly) rely on advertising. In fact, even if you subscribe to pay TV you won’t entirely avoid advertising there either. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it would appear that Australian television and advertising are joined at the hip. So its really no wonder that Freeview want to try and ensure this continues with the switch to digital.

The question is, are they going about it the right way?

Lets face it, television advertising really hasn’t changed that much over the years – for example, compare this ad from the late 1930s:

with a more recent ad:

What has changed is that ads now have to work harder to grab our attention, but the fundamental approach is still the same. This in itself offers one alternative model for advertisers, since thanks to the Internet, the most entertaining ads can take on a viral life of their own. But bearing in mind long tail theory, there is probably a limit to the number of ads that will be successful this way – and in any case, this doesn’t solve the problem of the relationship between television and advertising. However, what the success of viral video ad campaigns do reflect is deeper changes with consumer behaviour as we turn to the Internet for entertainment and social networking.

Now if we assume that consumers don’t want or are unable to pay for television content at the full subscription rate, then advertising and sponsorship must remain as the viable alternative model. But recognising the changes to consumer viewing and buying behaviour, what must  change is how we go about linking television sponsorship to the consumer.

So lets start looking at these changes as an opportunity. Watching television is ultimately a social activity – we either watch it with people or talk to other people about what we watch. Perhaps its time to shift the emphasis of television advertising from simply the advert itself to what really matters – raising awareness, engaging with customers and providing follow through once they have made the purchase.

There are a couple of examples in the Headshift case files that are worth considering as the basis for a new model for an advertising, television and consumer relationship:

  • The Medicine Chest project demonstrates how a television program concept can be extended to create an online environment for viewer participation – consumers will actively want to know about products used in these traditional remedies; and
  • Motoraddicts is an online social network for car lovers, developed for Castrol as a way of reaching out to their most passionate customers – wouldn’t car and motoring TV show viewers want to know about a site where they can discuss what they’ve just watched?

Of course, to successfully engage with customers in this new medium will need new advertising approaches and new skills. And the first new skill is understanding that while television provides advertisers with an excuse to talk to customers, it doesn’t mean you have to shout at them by forcing them to watch ads they simply aren’t interested in.