What I Learned From Television

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“Early TV programs often blurred the line between the program and the advertising… Today, advertising appears in programming in wildly different formats: from the form of product placement to a stand-alone format called infomercials.”Perhaps it’s happened to you too. If you’ve clicked on an interesting image or piece of content only to find that you clicked through an online advertisement, you may be missing the lines between content and advertising. Their dichotomy is not new: television networks have been thinking about the distinction for over 60 years. Can their models reveal anything about the future direction of online advertising? While this issue of Boxes and Arrows provides us with strategies on looking forward, we might also look back for indications of how to proceed.

Since the 1940s, television networks have incorporating advertising into their programming. Television, in fact, was originally thought to have been a commercial extension of the radio. Early TV programs often blurred the line between the program and the advertising—Andy Griffith’s affinity for Sanka coffee from General Foods on the Andy Griffith Show being one early example where actors shamelessly promoted products as part of the programming. Since then, advertising has evolved, not in small part due to Nielsen Ratings who mine data that informs networks about which advertising will speak to which groups of audiences. Today, advertising appears in programming in wildly different formats: from the form of product placement to a stand-alone format called infomercials.

Television advertising has evolved such that its encroachment into the programming space doesn’t even seem like an invasion (sometimes). Strategies to create more integrated and more seamless transitions between programming and advertising have been successful, and public opinion of advertising is at once more informed and less annoyed than ever before. (Partly responsible: DVRs, which allow consumers to watch customized programming ad-free, leaving the consumer in charge like never before.)

Despite the increasing number of website ads, consumers aren’t necessarily getting their feathers ruffled more, they’re getting smarter. Adoption of tools such as pop-up blockers and ad blockers have rendered a user who is in control, while forcing smart advertisers to develop more compelling strategies. What this could mean, however, is that more of the real estate on a given page might be shared with advertising. Somehow, this might be acceptable if the ads presented on the page are relevant. But if history is any indication, new business models will begin to develop.

Today, a typical hour-long program that in the 1960s had 51 minutes of programming is down to 43 minutes. On average now, a “half-hour” program, is actually just 23 minutes of content. Product placement has become so prevalent that it is becoming difficult to detect the difference between content and advertising. The Superbowl, as one example, is sometimes more heralded for its advertising than the content itself. At the most extreme, there are even entire feature-length commercials called infomercials. With the formats varying so widely and the prevalence of television ads so high, the line between programming and advertisements is once again as blurred as it was in Mayberry.

What about public television and its “advertising-free” model? TiVo? Could there be parallels to come online? Likewise, a subscription-based model such as cable television might offer interesting insight into what is to come. Or even more provocative: TiVo’s recent introduction of TiVo ToGo.

Other successful clues, such as the pervasive Subservient Chicken show us that online advertising can reach the viral effect of a “Where’s the Beef” or “ How Many Licks?” Indeed, television advertisers, at least, have brought in film directors to orchestrate advertisements. Is this in store for online ads? Perhaps the Errol Morris-led Apple Switch Campaign is an early example of the need to create well-directed and compelling online advertising.

If history is any indication, this is just the beginning.

Liz Danzico, editor for Boxes and Arrows, started her IA career teaching English in Japan, forcing her to structure information into lesson plans and class activities. After more formal training, she’s been able to work on projects for clients from Charles Schwab to Columbia House to Barnes & Noble.com.

Liz is an information architect in New York City and teaches design history at The New School University. Liz has a B.A. in English from Penn State University and an M.A. in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon.

Her personal site can be found at bobulate.com.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the article.

    Television viewers are naturally anonymous to television content producers and advertising companies. Development of technology to track television consumption habits was itself not enough to make possible statistically meaningful observations.

    The nature of the technology made it impossible to get this information without permission from observation subjects themselves. In other words, the development of services that depend upon a particular technology, in this case “targeted” advertising upon the technology of television, depended on legal decisions about privacy issues, issues that overlaid lines drawn by technological obstacles.

    Unfortunately, the technology upon which the Web world sits is fundamentally different from that which television sits. One prominent and crucial difference is the ease with which individual user behavior can be tracked (albeit with less than 100% accuracy, but to be sure, more accurate than television consumption measurement systems). Laws govern what sorts of information can be tracked, and what sorts of disclosures a company must give to the observed parties. Some of those laws were developed from laws governing more traditional media, such as television. As tracking technology on the Web was developed and implemented with almost comical ease, legislatures struggled to keep up, sometimes erroneously applying “wisdom” gleaned from an understanding of something that is fundamentally different.

    Don’t believe me? Think of the scads of spyware applications (and anti-spyware applications, and anti-anti-spyware …) out there today. And with that ease comes the significant legal burden – to create a proper balance between individual and social rights without having the natural crutch of an insurmountable technology problem to rest upon.

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