Commercials are like dentists. Everybody complains about them and tries to avoid them but they're a necessity of modern life. Without them, we'd have no free TV programs and no teeth.
Using computerized sentiment analysis, we eavesdropped on 17 million consumer postings to social media sites over the last year to see how folks were feeling about commercials.
The answer: not so good. Net sentiment hovered close to zero all year, dipping to -9 percent this month.
There's one big difference between dentists and commercials though: Dentists are here to stay, while commercials (and maybe free TV) are in trouble. Once again, the Internet is to blame. And once again, traditional media is having a hard time dealing with it.
You'll recall that a few years ago, newspaper publishers and the many big-J journalists who populate the think tanks and universities (and who should be sued for consumer fraud for recruiting students into a field that has fewer than no openings) decried the rise of news "aggregators" on the Internet and cursed the day that newspapers had put their content out on the Web without charging for it.
Well, guess what? Newspapers are now charging for their content but the Internet is still there and Google News is still sending eyeballs all over the universe instead of just to the front page of the Mulkeytown Gazette, as Mulkeytown's scribes would much prefer.
Newspapers, not famous for listening to their end users, never quite caught on that it wasn't price that was driving Internet reading decisions. Rather, it was convenience -- primarily portability and time-shifting. Readers could find stories they wanted to read and read them whenever they wanted to, without getting ink all over their fingers or having to fold a bulky newspaper into little tiny sections so as to make it subway-friendly.
Justified, or not
Similarly, Internet video sites like YouTube, Netflix and Hulu are drawing eyeballs away from ABC, CBS, NBC and, yes, even Fox. Again, it's not because the Web streams are commercial-free; some are, some aren't. Rather, it's convenience and time-shifting.
Want to watch a whole season of "Justified?" No problem. It's out there somewhere.
This irks TV networks and over-the-air stations, who are feeling the same audience erosion so familiar to their print brethren. It's sort of a "Where's the rest of me?" emotion as, one by one, viewers stop behaving like mushrooms and start behaving more like wiley foxes who go out prowling around for something tasty.
Since it's a relatively slow erosion, like the Colorado River creating the Grand Canyon, everyone has sort of learned to live with it. But now a disruptive gambler named Charlie Ergen has managed to set off an earthquake that is shaking things up much more violently.
When Ergen's Dish TV rolled out its Auto Hop feature last month -- allowing consumers to automatically skip commercials on TV shows they had recorded on their digital Dish recorders -- the TV world went ape and began papering Ergen with lawsuits and declaiming that he would go down in history as the man who killed off television as we know it.
Which might not be a bad thing, but that's another story.
|Consumers sound off about Dish|
See, everybody knew that viewers had been avoiding commercials since the first VCR was introduced a few decades ago. Everybody knew it but no one talked about it. The rating services chose to ignore it, the networks ignored it and the advertising agencies ignored it. No one wants to kill the golden goose, after all, and so what if major brands spend billions of dollars on commercials that fail to reach entire battalions of eyeballs?
But thanks to Charlie Ergen, the subject is now out in the open and must be dealt with. Something of a recluse, Ergen seldom speaks to the press but the Wall Street Journal managed to lure him out to a waffle house the other day, where he presented his side of the story.
Dish TV has previously painted itself as the consumer's friend -- and has presented Auto Hop as simply providing a service its customers have been asking for.
But Ergen took it a step further in the Journal interview, blaming consumer distaste for commercials on -- are you ready? -- the commercials. Oh sure, they are loud, intrusive, crass and all those things. Everybody knows that. But what Ergen finds truly objectionable is that most TV ads are not targeted.
Does a 22-year-old want to watch a commercial for denture cream? No, of course not. Does an elderly pensioner want to see spots for condoms? No, and therein lies the rub.
The answer, says Ergen, can be found on the Internet, which has put the concept of targeting -- something ad people talk about but don't really do very often -- into practice in a big way.
Think about it a minute. Those little Google text ads you see everywhere and the display ads you see in the few spots not filled by text ads or a small squirt of content? They're targeted, sometimes eerily so.
Targeted ads have many advantages. They work better for advertisers, producing a higher response rate at less cost. They work better for consumers, presenting information that may actually be useful and not therefore quite as distracting. And, perhaps most significantly, they support all kinds of content that would never see the light of day otherwise.
The TV and advertising worlds need to peer carefully into the mirror, Ergen thinks. Instead of lambasting him, suing his company and clogging up Capitol Hill with hordes of whining lobbyists, they need to get busy figuring out how to deliver narrowly targeted ads that viewers won't be so eager to get away from.
After all, if dentists didn't target their work carefully and simply drilled, pulled and spackled with wild abandon, would they seriously expect to keep their appointment books filled to overflowing?
This is a boxing match that's just in the latter half of the first round. It has a ways to go, although there's always the chance of a knock-out. But whoever wins, assuming Congress and the alphabet soup agencies stay out of the way, it's likely consumers -- you know, viewers -- will be the winners.