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Fred's Views


Enough, Already

I've just read that there is a class action suit in the U.S. against a movie chain which shows 4 or more minutes of commercials at the scheduled time for the start of the feature movie. The worst part of the suit is that it took that long sentence to describe it. The suit should be for showing commercials, period! I don't go to the movies very often, for many reasons, one being that the whole experience is too expensive. But after I fork out all of that money, the last thing I want to see is commercials. I can see that at home - or, rather, I can fast forward through them at home. Given that most (but not all) movies are no better than what is available for "free" over the air waves or at a slight (per program) cost through cable or satelite, it's hard to feel sympathetic for movie producers or theater chains. But it is unforgivable to force patrons, who have parted with their hard earned dollars, to sit through all this garbage.

Now I'll do an about face. Actually, messages that are mostly entertaining with just a brief pitch for a product, service or organization which are played for the fifteen or so minutes before the movie start time would be quite acceptable for me. Although visibly (pun notwithstanding) absent from my last trip to the theater (to see the second Harry Potter flick), I enjoyed the trivia questions that were presented in our "local" theater on previous visits. Something along that line with a tag line to promote a product, etc. would be quite acceptable. Or a banner ad over no more than a quarter of the screen while some other "entertainment" was playing would be effective and acceptable as well.

I joked earlier about fast forwarding through commercials. Since the networks often see fit to pit their best shows against each other, we make extensive use of our VCRs, so we do, in fact, fast forward through many commercials. The interesting thing is, I still get the message. Either I've already seen the ad so many times that it takes just a second or two flying by to recall it, or even that brief viewing is enough to identify the product. Either way, I get the message.

There are many "schools of thought" about how to make your commercial more effective. For example, Charlize Theron does an appeal for abused animals. The cause is noble. The spot uses the "Keep it simple" approach. A straight forward appeal, with videos of animals being mistreated. It's one of my preferred type of advertisements. But it fails on two counts: One, Charlize is an actress who, supposedly, is passionate about the plight of these animals. Yet, she gives her spiel in a boring monotone that belies the concern of her words - and nearly puts me asleep. Second, the spot airs continuously on the "Space" network here in Canada. (Which is not to say that it doesn't air elsewhere, just that that's where I keep seeing it.)

One school of advertising promotes the straight forward, simple pitch. When done well it is not only effective, but, if the message is informative, can project an aura of honesty and trust. Another school advocates hitting the audience hard, fast and often with their often blatantly banal messages. By airing the same commercial numerous times within the same one, two or three hour block, this approach "saturates" the audience with its message. If you took a bathroom break the first time it appeared, it'll catch you later on. Apparently this approach is effective because a lot of advertisers do it. But it drives me nuts. Even the entertaining and "cute" commercials become extremely annoying after you have been bombarded with them three or four times in one sitting.

Another approach is to make the advertising entertaining. Over the years, we've seen quite a lot of commercials that made us laugh or smile, or surprised us with a unique twist. These are the commercials I tend to remember and appreciate - if they are not shown so often and long that they become annoying.

Advertising is intended to accomplish one or both of these goals: get you to remember the advertiser's name (for future purchase), or get you to buy the product immediately. Obviously, advertising must be effective, since we see so much of it, but I don't think that I am significantly influenced by the advertising. To the extent that advertising makes me aware of new products, new organizations, or new "lower" prices, it has an effect. But advertising alone won't make me choose Pepsi over Coke. In fact, the only thing that will make me choose either over my favorite "store brand" is price. If I can buy two liters of Pepsi for a few cents more than my store brand, I'll buy the Pepsi. If Coke is even cheaper, I'll buy Coke. For me, price is the greatest motivator. Sure, I know that Coke and Pepsi taste better than the store brand, but not enough to make me want to pay nearly half as much again to buy it. And, if I were given a glass of Pepsi and another of Coke, I might tell the difference between them, but, the difference is so slight I could never discern it otherwise. So, price is everything (for me) in the cola wars.

My wife likes Kraft Miracle Whip and Cascade dish washing detergent. I once tried the "store brand", but she told me to go back to Miracle Whip. Personally, I couldn't tell the difference, but she, apparently, could. I don't mind paying more if I actually get more - so we buy Miracle Whip. But in many other instances, we buy what's on sale or the store brand. I do have my favorite brands for some products. Generally, I prefer Campbell's soup over Heinz or the store brand. But, depending on how it is used, I'll buy whatever is lower priced. We often buy a can of "Chunky" soup and a can (usually store brand) of condensed soup and mix the two together. It's much cheaper than two cans of "Chunky" and much better tasting/filling than condensed soup alone. It's a compromise between taste/quality and price. Advertising has little effect on my soup decisions. However, advertising might get me to "try" another brand, particularly if it were on sale or if I had a "money-saving" coupon for it. So, advertising might make me aware of a new brand, but "price" would, in most cases, be the determining factor controlling whether I actually try the new product or not.

But, as usual, I digress. Let me say one more thing about advertising in general, and then end with a return to the movies. Whatever "school of advertising" a company may follow, one thing seems obvious to me: Bad advertising can be far more effective in turning people "off" than good advertising will ever be in motivating people to "buy" the product. There are products (or services) that I never intend to use because I was annoyed by their advertising. (But, admittedly, there are a few products/companies I will probably continue to support in spite of their advertising - such as Daimler-Chrysler despite their "Heimlich maneuver" Ram Truck commercial.)

Meanwhile, back at the movies. I buy a lot of movies for home viewing. Until recently, I bought VHS tapes. Most of them had "coming attractions" before the movie. I few of them insulted me with commercials for other products. But in all cases, I could simply fast forward through this junk (and the copyright notice) to the movie. (Unfortunately, perhaps, I could also fast forward through the opening and closing credits, if I wished.) So, although it was an annoyance, I could quickly bypass it. Now, however, I'm buying a lot more DVDs. I usually pay a premium of about $10 for the privilege. Sometimes the "bonus" materials make the extra cost palatable, but usually the "bonus" stuff is utterly unremarkable. But the real problem is that I'm held captive. In most cases, I have no choice but to sit through the copyright and the coming attractions. No control on my DVD will allow me to skip this material. And that's plain wrong. Disney is a major violator in this area. And they should be ashamed of themselves. I will probably continue to buy Disney videos that I really want to see, but I probably will not buy many videos that I otherwise would consider buying (such as Milo and Stitch) because of this irresponsible use of the DVD's "programming" power.

No column would be complete without mentioning ... Microsoft! Everybody uses Microsoft products, but does anyone actually like Microsoft, as a company? I know of no one who would admit to being a user and a fan. Microsoft's heavy-handed practices and general disregard for its customers has left many of us just begging for a competitor. It doesn't take much to turn off a loyal customer. And, once turned off, he/she may never come back. Microsoft believes it's immune because it has such a strangle-hold on the personal computing market. Other companies, like Disney, don't dominate their markets quite as much. If their advertising/promoting practices annoy their customers enough, they'll feel it where it really hurts. That's effective advertising.

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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