I was stifling a yawn over breakfast recently when my five-year-old son approached the table and fixed me with a quizzical look. This is not an unusual occurrence so I continued to eat my Weetabix. But he kept staring.
“Yes?” I said, putting down my spoon.
“You need 5-Hour Energy,” he said, finally.
“Tired?” he said, in a booming voice. “Groggy? Can’t seem to get anything done? You need 5-Hour Energy drink. 5-Hour Energy! When you’ve got to get stuff done!” And he bounced off, chirruping the slogan to himself, as if it was some sort of mantra.
Like most households with cable or satellite television, we have a digital video recorder, which means we record the programmes we want to watch and skip through the advertisements. But my son and I have watched plenty of live sport on television this summer, from the tennis at Wimbledon through to the European football championships and the Olympics, so he saw some commercials. He only saw the ad for 5-Hour Energy – a Red Bull-style energy drink – a couple of times but it was clearly enough for his brain to absorb its central message: if you’re tired, you need 5-Hour Energy. Thank goodness for the dark magic of advertising.
My first response after his impromptu breakfast performance was to redouble efforts to keep him away from commercials (I could do without my children trying to sell me energy drinks, thank you very much). But it also occurred to me that, barring the 5-Hour Energy exception, his is a generation that will have limited exposure to TV advertising.
When I was a child in the UK, watching TV meant watching commercials. Today that is no longer the case, thanks to DVRs. This is not to say there is no TV advertising around: watch network or cable TV in the US and the most striking thing is the frequency of the ads. It is hardly a new phenomenon: NBC, ABC and the other US networks have been hitting their viewers over the heads with intrusive commercials for decades. The recording devices that allow viewers to skip through commercials are a relatively recent development but close to 45 per cent of US homes have one and all the evidence suggests they are having a big effect.
My Financial Times colleague Emily Steel reported this week that nationwide US advertising campaigns are failing to hit the mark. Simulmedia, an ad targeting company, found that in many cases campaigns were reaching only a small proportion of their target audiences: a recent campaign by Unilever for its Axe body spray was not seen by 60 per cent of the 18 to 24-year-olds it was intended to reach, the report found.
This could partly be explained by viewers drifting away from TV and spending more of their time online or doing healthier things such as staying away from screens altogether. But it is also because it is so easy for TV viewers to avoid ads by picking up the remote control and fast-forwarding through them.
The big TV networks have belatedly realised that they have to fight efforts to make skipping ads easier. A new DVR from Dish Networks, one of the biggest satellite operators, was launched this year with an inbuilt “ad eraser”. It records programmes and takes out the commercials automatically so the viewer does not even have to press fast-forward on the TV remote control.
What could be better than that? Now you don’t even have to pick up the remote to fast-forward through the commercials. But the device sparked an apoplectic reaction: Fox, which is part of News Corp, this week filed a lawsuit against Dish to ban the device; NBC, CBS and ABC are also pushing to block it.
Regardless of whether the networks succeed, the genie may be out of the bottle. Yes, some programming that has to be watched live, such as big sports events, will always attract advertising. But how much longer will companies pour money into TV commercials to be shown during comedies or dramas if people have no intention of watching them?
After all, getting viewers to watch commercials is the only hurdle that matters for companies hawking products. Once the viewer has his or her eyes on the screen the message can be spread and the seed of interest can be planted – although it obviously helps if the person watching is only five years old.