Must See TV No More?

“You’ve created a fetish around watching the commercials, and not going to the kitchen or the bathroom during the commercials. That’s a pretty amazing thing to have done,” says Turow. But is the phenomenon sustainable?

The new decade represents a sad state of affairs for traditional TV watching. The media environment is more fragmented than ever. There are more channels offering more and more specialization in their entertainment offerings. News coverage has largely devolved to bickering partisans and talking heads telling viewers what they tuned in to hear. Everyone has their own slate of Must See TV, and watching those shows when they are actually aired is becoming more and more archaic. If the computer is the New TV and social TV watching is on it’s way out, as a recent study has suggested, can event television like the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards continue to thrive in the age of small screen TV? If Pepsi’s decision not to advertise during this year’s Super Bowl is any indication, there may be trouble on the horizon.

There is an argument for seeing Pepsi’s decision as a purely financial one, a particularly striking representation of a new American austerity already reflected in rising savings rates and stubbornly low consumer spending numbers. When you or I decide to go without a new toy or luxury it means something to us, but little to everyone. When Pepsi decides to eschew the finer things in life, it reminds us all of the times we’re living in. We may have short memories for financial hardship as a society, but we know bad when we see it.

As much as it is the sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl is also a can’t-miss cultural and commercial event. The year’s best ads make the game an orgy of consumerism that’s nearly unmatched in contemporary culture. So when we start talking about advertisers' fiscal discipline in the context of the Super Bowl, it’s a sure sign that, while the economy may be slowly recovering, the Great Recession has changed the way Americans look at spending. But it also sends a message that the nature of advertising is changing, and even if TV still rules the roost, it’s more out of momentum than anything. When even the Super Bowl is no longer an unassailable advertising haven, there’s a new day dawning in advertising. It’s this aspect, more than anything, that author and media scholar Joseph Turow, the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, sees represented in Pepsi’s decision to drop their ads this year.

“I don’t think Pepsi’s decision had anything to do with tough economic times,” says Turow. Instead, he posits the move is an indication of the new direction that advertising is heading in and the more personalized, social approach that is a pillar of this new style. “[Pepsi] has gotten the idea that in the near to medium term, the best way they can get people to pay attention to Pepsi is through social networking and social good. And they made the decision that a Super Bowl ad was not going to sit with that characteristic.” And while the decision to pull Pepsi ads from the Super Bowl is one bound to grab some headlines of it’s own, it doesn’t represent a sea change in TV advertising. Not yet, anyway. ”It’s not as if the company has forsworn the Super Bowl,” Turow says, pointing out that other Frito Lay companies, such as Fritos and Taco Bell, will be plainly visible between downs during the big game. “Down the line, I think the question is [if we are] seeing the crumbling of the need for the biggest companies that are interested in mass audiences to be in the Super Bowl. Right now, I don’t think that’s an issue.”

Despite the exit of some big name advertisers like Pepsi and FedEx, the Super Bowl, remains an advertising event with a mystique all its own. And that mystique is still worth something to advertisers -- specifically, it’s worth about $6 million a minute, according to numbers from NBC this year. “I think we’ll always have huge event potential for marketers, and they can then use that as companies do now -- to move people to their websites. That was unusual 5-6 years ago. Now, it’s pretty common to leverage a Super Bowl commercial to continue the conversation on the web or elsewhere.”

This conflict between traditional advertising, represented by monolithic TV spots, and the more nimble social media messaging that seems poised to dominate the advertising of the next decade, may be the matter to watch. In an advertising environment like today’s, which values engagement, interactivity and dialogue with an audience, television commercials still have a hard time being parties to a conversation; frankly, even at their best, they just kind of shout at us. Which makes one wonder: is any commercial, even a blockbuster one like the Super Bowl is famous for, simply outmoded, a blunt instrument in a world that demands more subtle tools?

“I think there is always going to be room for both,” says Turow of these competing notions of advertising. “There are some advertisers who believe that a perception of commonality is important to advertising, that is that the perception that everyone is watching a Nike ad, for example, is a really important sense for giving excitement to the idea of Nike.” This is the notion behind watching the Super Bowl for the commercials -- it gives us all something shared to discuss around the water cooler next morning. What it fails to do is really dovetail with niche marketing -- or does it? This seeming conflict between the two schools of thought may not be impossible to resolve. In fact, thanks to the progression of technology in advertising, it may not even be that difficult - which is where things get a little spooky.

“Down the line, it will be perfectly possible to have a Super Bowl commercial with 1000 different types for the same product,” says Turow. “We’ll all see the commercial for Nike, realizing that there are lots of different commercials that different households are seeing for the same product.” This could be the next step in TV advertising: a kind of customized commonality, carrying with it the implicit understanding that while we’re all watching a commercial for the same product, the commercial you’re seeing is a personal experience, tailored to you. Or tailored to someone’s idea of you, anyway.

There’s some question in Turow’s mind as to whether the ‘creepiness factor’ inherent in this sort of personalized advertising could prevent it from catching on. “But you’d be surprised how fast things creep up on the American people,” warns Turow. “There are things that are not spooky today that would have been considered really spooky a few years ago. We’ve learned to live with them.”

This fragmenting of the audience and pandering to different groups, even different ethnicities in a similar ad, may have been put off thus far only because no one wants to be the first one to try it on such a large stage. Companies are wary of the media firestorm they risk walking into the first time the some members of the public get, for example, a Latino Pepsi ad, rather than just a Pepsi ad. “Well, you can make a really good case for ‘Why not?’", offers Turow, quick to play devil’s advocate. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing, necessarily ... but it already happens all the time on different channels. The question is will it happen and should it happen and what are the implications of it happening during a collectively experienced event like the Super Bowl.” And though the Super Bowl might not be at a long-term risk, it’s appeal to people who don’t regularly watch football may be.

“It’s only recently, in the last 15 years or so, that people have begun to associate the Super Bowl with this 'Must See' advertising,” Turow reminds us. “The Super Bowl existed before that, and the Super Bowl will exist after that.” But the 'Must See TV' aspect of Super Bowl advertising makes the event a bigger tent that, welcoming viewers who are not necessarily die-hard sports fans to the biggest sporting event of the year “You’ve created a fetish around watching the commercials, and not going to the kitchen or the bathroom during the commercials. That’s a pretty amazing thing to have done.”

An amazing phenomenon, to be certain -- but is it a sustainable one? On that point Turow is less than certain. “We’ve created a sense around the Super Bowl that the ads are part of the event ... it’s still that and the Academy Awards for the two events that people keep talking about. Whether that’s going to be true in five years will be interesting to find out,” Turow says. “If people begin to feel like the creativity is lost, you’re going to lose people that way, and the idea of the Super Bowl being a 'Must See' TV event is going to fall by the wayside.”

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