The end of advertising as we know it is only the beginning

In this new Forum mini-series, marketing vet John Bradley rifles through the ad history archives to supply context for the ongoing evolution and help decode today's changing times. Along the way, he explores how current practices and aspects of the job are changing in ways we may not yet realize.

In this new Forum mini-series, marketing vet John Bradley rifles through the ad history archives to supply context for the ongoing evolution and help decode today’s changing times. Along the way, he explores how current practices and aspects of the job are changing in ways we may not yet realize.

We had a life-changing stroke of luck a couple of months ago: we won a 42′ plasma HD television in a lottery. That was the stroke of luck. The life-changing bit was that we decided to leverage our good fortune by subscribing to HD cable channels and getting a cable box with integral PVR.

I don’t know how we managed without it. Not only does HDTV live up to its billing (we now refer to non-HD channels as ‘Blur-o-Vision’), but mastering the PVR means that we never watch commercials.

Consequently, we have rediscovered the pleasures of television. Great for us, but bad for advertisers and media owners, as the medium’s economic model heads for the abyss when PVRs become ubiquitous.

This model, in which content is paid for by sellers – as long as the medium delivers buyers – has a long history. It achieved its modern form in 1835, when James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald, a scandal-filled rag designed to get the masses to read advertisements for Benjamin Brandreth’s Vegetable Universal Pills, the first patent medicine megabrand.

This concept has surely exceeded its best-before date. I am convinced that TV is reaching a tipping point where the 30-second ad could be doomed. Which would be ironic, as it sprang from an equally cataclysmic tipping point in the 1950s. Prior to that, most broadcast advertising came in the form of corporate brands sponsoring entire shows, like Kraft Television Theatre and I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris.

The final straw for show sponsorship was the shocking revelation that hit quiz shows like The $64,000 Question were rigged. The risk to a sponsor’s credibility was too great if this could happen. So the main channels ceased selling entire shows and decided to parcel up their airtime into 30-second segments.

This changed the economic model of broadcast advertising. The availability of short time spans at lower costs made it economical to focus each message slot on an individual brand, rather than a corporate entity. Hence the promotion of the corporate brand disappeared and companies fell over themselves to turn previously undistinguished products into brands. Until that point, Cadbury had advertised four brands; five years later it was advertising 17. Thus 30-second ads created the primacy of the product brand.

As the wheel turns again, advertisers will flee a medium whose viewers no longer watch 30-second ads. Rather than ask yourself where to advertise, you ought to ask what you should be advertising. TV is still the best medium when it’s not cluttered with countless ads, and it could still work for umbrella brands through the original idea of franchise sponsorship.

Brands like Dove are already transforming themselves into total body solutions. However, apart from the Campaign for Real Beauty (which for me is tainted by the whiff of corporate hypocrisy), Dove is still churning out 30-second ads, each watched by fewer and fewer people who PVR them into the ether. Such brands are ideally placed to lead the charge into a brave new world and have their own program or channel where the content is the advertisement.

I hope they do, because the other brands with sufficient scale are retailers, and if they figure it out, the era of manufacturer product brands, which is a historical anomaly, could end sooner than we think.

John Bradley is a career marketer turned consultant/author whose tome Cadbury’s Purple Reign will be available in Canada in mid-April. He responds to queries/comments/fan mail at johnbradley@Yknotsolutions.com.