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Why TV Commercials Suck And How To Fix Them

Commercials during your favourite TV shows are often called “a necessary evil”. To some extent that’s understandable – people need to make money and show paid ads during prime-time television is a great way to do so.

But do commercials really HAVE to suck? Isn’t there some way that we could actually make them better – better for the audience AND better for the companies pushing those ads? I say this because I figure that:

less people hating your ad = more people watching it = more people buying your product

As long as the ad agency remembers to put in a call to action and understands the basics of conversion, the above formula should hold true, correct?

So let’s look at how we can fix the bane that is TV commercials – and it’s quite simple really: find out WHY they suck and remove that irritant without compromising on the basic goal (i.e. sell stuff / promote your brand / etc).

Why TV Commercials Suck

Interrupt Narratives – TV commercials interrupt narratives that the audience are emotionally and materially (time) invested in. It’s the equivalent of reading a mystery and being forced to take a 2-3 minute break every 10 minutes to go look at the classifieds in your newspaper. Sure, you might need to buy a new car or get new curtains or whatever, but I’m going to assume that because you took the time out to read that book, you’re probably more interested in finished it (or reading a significant portion of it) NOW instead of getting up and going to the grocery store to buy milk, right?

Commercials are necessary but irritating. There has to be a better way to show ads without such brutal interruptions, right?

Untargeted – Most TV commercials are untargeted and have very little to do with the audience currently watching that particular TV show. Sure, ad rates and availability mean that people buy exposure more than they buy targeted exposure, but how stupid is it to show hair-care product ads during an episode of 24?

To be fair, you do see some level of targeted marketing – but overall there is a great divide between what is relevant to the audience and what is usually shown.

Too Much, Too Quickly – Ok, so they’re short of time during commercials and once the bright lights and the pretty models distract us, it makes sense to ram down as much information as possible down our throats (they might never get another chance, except they do 10 minutes later in the second commercial break…and so on).

Assuming that the viewer is even interested, there’s very little information that he or she needs to make a buying decision. Top of that list is ‘how does this satisfy my needs?’. Pricing, endorsements and talking bees don’t tell me much – I want to know how it will help ME, and if you can’t answer that in one sentence in the first 5 seconds, then the commercial is a waste of time.

I’m sure you’ll find more problems with TV commercials – maybe you don’t like how commercials routinely underestimate the intelligence of their viewing audience. However, I think that such problems (and especially this lack of respect for the viewers) can go away if the above three problems are fixed.

How To Fix TV Ads

Better Audience Targeting – part of this involves detailed profiling of TV audiences, which is being done more or less today. The other part is to match these profiles with the ideal audience for your products and then targeting specific TV shows. Yes, you might not get maximum exposure that way but you will easily get much better conversion (especially if you do everything else right).

It’s not rocket science, really – and it’s being done already in some way (remember the ‘Lost Experience‘ ads?).

And when you profile and target your audience, you create ads that they are likely to be receptive to – and thus eliminate the need to use visual crutches to get attention.

Continue The Narrative – instead of interrupting the narrative, think of ways to continue it (not the exact story of course) in terms of how your product / service relates to the back story. The Lost Experience ads mentioned above did exactly this – they continued the story and stayed in context, making it easier for viewers to pay attention and stay in the same frame of mind while watching the show and watching the commercials.

To make this work you’d need advertisers to target specific TV shows but that’s a bit like saying that advertisers would be targeting specific keywords or pages online – it’s a simple, straight-forward concept and it works far better than scatter-gun advertising.

Keep It Simple, Please – The more you ask people to think during an ad break (remember, our minds are most numb while we’re watch TV – which is kind of why the crappy advertising sometimes works) or the more you ask them to do, the more likely it is that your ad will flop. Free the ad of all clutter and stick to a single idea, a single pitch.

Mind you, keeping it simple does not mean dumbing it down and underestimating the intelligence of the audience – it simply means that you make your message / sales pitch crystal clear and poignant so that the viewers remember THAT and not a catchy punchline that does little to get them to buy the product (popularity of a commercial doesn’t not automatically translate into more sales).

Immediate Call For Action

Branding is great – showing untargeted ads that do nothing but remind viewers that Company X or Product Y exists are not.

It’s a given that advertising – whether it’s on TV or in print – needs a distinct and clear call to action. What’s equally important is how easy it should be for the viewers to take that action.

In print advertising coupons are excellent calls to action – they’re tangible (you can cut them out) and you know exactly what to do with them. Online ads have the same advantage – subscribe via RSS or sign up to a newsletter. The best calls to action take very little time to ‘hook’ the prospect and ask for little commitment.

Why can’t TV commercials be like that? Asking someone to go online and register on their website or to ‘buy a certain product the next time they are at the supermarket’ is a bit ridiculous and goes back to the same problem of interrupting narratives.

The preferred way is to ask viewers to call a toll-free number, but I’d suggest something much simpler – use SMS. It’s less time consuming, most people have their cellphones readily available to them even while watching TV and there’s no person-to-person interaction, which can sometimes be another obstacle.

This is one area where many companies are doing a great job in innovating – in terms of targeting the mobile space and in creating effective calls to action. However there are still many TV commercials and advertisements that don’t do this well (or have calls to action at all), and for the sake of both viewers and the companies pushing their commercials, something this basic has to be done right.

Do You Think TV Commercials Are Annoying? How Would You Fix Them?