At least a dozen billboards dot Michael Fetchik's daily two-mile bus commute from Weehawken, N.J., to New York City.
But rather than noticing the Washington Mutual, Hummer or Panasonic ads, he's
focused on the tiny keyboard of his Handspring Treo 600, a wireless all-in-one
phone, Web organizer, camera and e-mail gadget.
"There are ads?" says the 32-year-old information technology director when asked if he noticed the billboards.
In fact, he does see ads on the trip — those that come with the information he's digesting on his handheld. "I use AvantGo.com so when I synchronize my phone, I download news and other content to read — and with that comes ads," says Fetchik.
Consumers such as Fetchik pose an increasing challenge for the advertising industry as it competes for consumers' attention and time. Technology — from wireless devices to iPods to digital video recorders (DVRs), have given time-pressed consumers more choices and control over what they tune in or tune out — and also split the audience into narrower slices. Advertisers raised spending 10% to $140 billion last year, according TNS Media Intelligence, to put more ads in more places, but that onslaught may just be turning all marketing messages into white noise.
"We've become so good at mentally zapping it out. You can't presume that because advertising is all over the place that it's actually reaching them," says John Hunt, chief creative officer, TBWA/Chiat/ Day. He's also the judge overseeing competitions for best TV, print and outdoor ads at the 52nd annual Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, which begins in earnest today. The weeklong global competition has eight categories, including Internet and non-traditional ads.
Consumers today encounter from 3,500 to 5,000 marketing messages per day, vs. 500 to 2,000 in the 1970s, says J. Walker Smith, president of consumer and marketing watcher Yankelovich.
The result: "There are so many ads out there that consumers actively avoid commercials today to an extent never before realized," says Dan Howard, professor of advertising and consumer behavior at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business. "No matter how many more ads we put out there, it's not going to work ... because it's not registering."
More consumer control and more marketing white noise will be a big part of the buzz among industry leaders this week in Cannes — particularly what it means for mass-market TV advertising.
The TV commercial remains the biggest source of revenue for the ad industry — and for the networks that sell the time. Marketers put 38% of all ad dollars spent in 2004 into TV spots, according to TNS.
But the cash cow now is getting a run for its money from more narrowly targeted upstart ad venues, such as the Internet, video games, TV and movie product placement, and event marketing. Most of the new choices promise lower-cost ads that are harder to ignore. Advertisers are starting to ask whether TV is worth the price.
Ad expert Joseph Jaffe says the answer is absolutely not. In his new book, Life After the 30-second Spot: Energize Your Brand with a Bold Mix of Alternatives to Traditional Advertising, Jaffe writes that new media options and changing consumers, as well as a lack of creativity in content and use of TV ads, have changed the ad industry landscape.
"The 30-second spot has outlived its usefulness," says Jaffe. "We should pat it on the back, look back and say, 'Thanks for 50 years of great service. Here's your gold Rolex.' "
Faith Popcorn, CEO of ad consultancy BrainReserve, also thinks the days are numbered for TV ads' dominance. But she says many marketers remain reluctant to look at new media alternatives, in part because they don't know how to use them: "They don't know what to replace (TV) with."
"Clients continue to spend a majority of money in a very dinosauristic medium," Popcorn says. They are hoping they can retire before (change) happens."
If the number of entries at Cannes this year is any indicator, the prominence of TV ads may be waning even here. Entries in the "film" ad competition, long the glitziest category, dropped 2% to 4,995, while the number of entries overall is up 18% to 22,101.
But cable and broadcast TV network executives — who just finished getting solid rate increases in the "upfront" market, the annual period of ad selling for the fall season — say the 30-second TV ad is not going anywhere anytime soon, though they are seeing some experimentation with shorter and longer forms.
"It's not going away. ... There will still be billions of dollars spent on 30-second ads," says Ed Erhardt, president, ESPN ABC Sports Customer Marketing and Sales. "The 30-second is still by far the unit of choice. However, 10s, 15s and 5s and longer form are also quite viable."
Some observers see a future of ad campaigns that include TV spots, but as part of a creative mix of media that work together. A campaign might also include elements that reach consumers spending more of their time on the Web, on mobile phones, reading text messages or playing video games. And TV spending might be split between commercials and product placement that DVR users can't skip over. "Today you need a great idea, and you can work out which media types will reflect it," TBWA's Hunt says.
One advertising powerhouse beginning to rethink media strategy is Procter & Gamble, which spent about $2.4 billion, or 80%, of its $3 billion ad budget last year on TV. It is looking at how more use of options, such as product placement and alternative media, might work.
P&G is placing "hard emphasis on improving our return on investment," says spokesman Dave McCracken. "We're just getting smart in how we are using TV as part of our overall marketing mix."
New technologies may even offer more bang from traditional TV ads.
New ad agency Visible World, for example, has developed "adaptive" ad technology with which advertisers could digitally alter an ad for different markets. For example, New York viewers of a Ford ad airing on American Idol could see different elements — such as a different slogan or car color — than California viewers see.
"You've got some smart ways that technology can help breathe and inject new life into a dying industry," says Jaffe.
The issue underlying arguments over strategy and new technology is the battle for a little of consumers' time and attention as they balance work, family and personal needs. "Time is the new currency," Jaffe says.
Marketers are looking for strategies that fit with ways consumers are cutting corners in their busy lives, such as using DVRs to watch TV shows on their schedules — and skipping the ads on playback.
"People are so busy, overdone, overworked and over committed," says Popcorn. "If I can watch Desperate Housewives without commercials, I can watch it in 40% of the programmed time."
Similarly, the iPod has let consumers, in effect, program their own commercial-free "radio."
"The iPod has forever ushered in individuals being in charge of their own playlists," says Burger King's Russ Klein, the chief marketing officer who's pushed the burger giant's greater use of non-traditional ad mediums. "It is a huge symbolism of how these customers insist on personal and individual power."
That insistence is likely to increase with the next big cohort of consumers, the 76 million so-called echo boomers, who've never known life without cell phones, laptops and iPods.
Some examples of other advertisers trying new approaches along with traditional TV strategies:
•Burger King. Creating big buzz at Cannes
last year was a Burger King Web site that featured a silly Subservient
Chicken — a man in a tacky chicken suit — who responded to typed-in commands.
It was an Internet hit, and BK followed it last fall with a boxing match on DirecTV between fighters dressed as chickens who represented the T.C. (Tendercrisp) and Spicy (Spicy Tendercrisp) chicken sandwiches. The bout was then posted for replay on the Web.
BK began trying out such alternatives about three years ago. "We have probably doubled and almost doubled again our alternative media budgets over the past three years," says Klein.
He thinks the non-traditional ad is on its way to becoming standard. "In another 10-15 years all this stuff will be as normal as talking about 30-second ads," Klein says.
•Pepsi One. This diet cola hit the market
in 1998 with a $100 million TV ad budget that included action spots with
Cuba Gooding Jr.
For the brand's recent re-launch, however, Pepsi is using an approach that also includes Web, print and outdoor ads. Featured are characters who overcome differences to work together — to "Oneify" — the way Pepsi One unifies zero calories and full flavor.
The launch included a show at a gallery in New York City's trendy SoHo area featuring ads first posted on the Web. The same characters are now in 15-second TV ads.
"We're certainly not running away from television, but Web, print and outdoor ads can connect with consumers in a different way," says spokesman Dave DeCecco.
•Mini Cooper. The brand is owned by BMW,
a pioneer in alternative ads on the Internet, including two short-film
The Mini brand recently created a Web site for the fictional "Counter Counterfeit Commission" (www.counterfeitmini.org). The interactive site, which has drawn 38 million hits, warns consumers of "Mini fakes" (essentially any non-Mini vehicle). It invites them to send in photos of such fakes and has drawn some oddball entries.
The site also sells a $19.99 comedy DVD that tells consumers how to detect fakes. Traditional TV ads on E!, History Channel, ESPN and MTV also pitch the DVD.
•Anheuser-Busch. The brewing giant recently
hired JibJab studio — the shop behind the This Land presidential election
spoof that spread across the Web to an estimated 80 million viewers last
fall. JibJab's first Internet work for A-B will be out later this summer.
A-B sees the Web as a cost-effective way to reach large numbers of its
core young, male audience — a notoriously hard group to find.
"The consumer that comes to your Web site is actively looking for you, and that's the best media deal you can make," says Bob Lachky, head of A-B marketing.
Theresa Howard, USA TODAY. June 19, 2005
Copyright © 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.. All rights reserved.