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Advertising’s tumbleweed moments.

Advertising’s tumbleweed moments.

Advertising research has got much harder of late.

So says a researcher friend of mine.

As if it weren’t bad enough to have to schlep out to the suburbs three nights a week, and subsist on breakfast cereal for dinner, those pesky people just don’t want to talk about ads any more when you get there.

In fact it’s worse than that. They’re not just unwilling but also unable to talk about ads it would seem.

It used to be the case that you could warm up eight strangers gathered together in a ninth stranger’s living room by asking them to describe any ads they had seen and liked recently. Sit back, relax and watch the group bond for a few easy minutes.

Not any more apparently.

These days the hapless researcher is likely to be met by stony silence and bemusement. It’s an awkward tumbleweed moment.

Have we liked any ads recently? Sorry, we don’t understand the question.

The idea that people might have seen, liked and remembered any advertising does not compute.

Eight people can not recall a single remarkable piece of advertising between them.

It has happened to my friend in enough groups for it to become remarkable, a thing.

He now takes along some self-curated ads as extra stimulus material. Breaking the ice about advertising has become a laboured, prompted act rather than the effortless, spontaneous one it used to be.

Advertising’s credentials as a commercial art form are evidently not as strong as they once were.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a comprehensive essay on the ins and outs of why that might be.

But I will say that the industry is exercising too much restraint. Advertising, particularly television advertising,  is caught between a rock and a hard place.

You only have to watch an evening or two of prime time television to know that the processes and quality control procedures by which TV commercials come to be are not fit for the purpose of producing work that people want to talk about. Exceptions to this rule, the Yeo Valleys of this world, are depressingly fewer and further between. Lowest common denominator briefs that avoid the parapet at all costs, coupled with stultifying, over-intellectual approval procedures, restrain creativity and deny television the opportunity to do the job that it does best.

Another form of restraint is the tendency to view advertising, especially good old fashioned telly advertising, as the wrong answer, even when it is palpably the right answer.

Our brand is in desperate need of a shot in the arm. We need to get people to sit up and take notice of us again. We need overnight positive reappraisal.

If ever a brand were crying out for TV advertising…

And yet, even when the money is available, marketers are reluctant to do the right thing.

We want an innovative solution*. We want a shareable† content strategy that engages‡ our audience and drivesº word of mouth through social networks.

There’s another kind of awkward tumbleweed moment when the seasoned marketing communications professional recommends television as the right tool for the job to the thrusting young brand manager with an unhealthy innovation fixation.

Television isn’t innovation. Television isn’t clever.

This attitude conveniently forgets that television is big. Bigger than any audience you’re going to earn in social spaces.

It’s neither big nor clever to walk away from the obvious solution just because it is obvious. But brands are doing just that.

If advertising is unfashionable in marketing circles, should we be surprised that its status is similarly diminished on the sofas of Slough, Salford and Sheffield?



* If you recommend TV we’ll view you as lazy even if you’re right.

† You mean shareworthy. Any old shit is shareable.

‡ WTF does that mean?

º They are people not sheep.




  1. Listen, I don’t really have a beef with the central premise of your post – TV advertising has a place, and it can be the right answer to a brief.

    But, we also need to consider a few things:

    maybe TV adverts don’t get recalled because people FF through them because technology has made them avoidable (so maybe we need to make them so that they work at x32).

    Maybe we need to remember that TV adverts can actually be viewed in loads of places that AREN’T TV – YouTube anyone? – (so maybe we need to see them as a short video, that we will place on lots of different channels – wherever our audience are).

    Maybe we need to see a video ad as just the start of the conversation, because audiences don’t want to always passively receive messages, they might want to contribute (so using your video ad as the conversation starter, and then using other activities to cultivate their interest is a great idea that can strengthen the impact of your TV – sorry, video – ad).

    None of this denies TV as a powerful medium. It’s just not the whole of the answer any more.

  2. Eric Welsh

    I couldn’t agree more Phil but I can’t help thinking that we got here because advertising failed to regulate those that practice advertising. We are an industry where any old Tom, Dick or Harry can set up shop and did, they then offered to shave thousands off a clients advertising bill in order to win the business and when the price had been driven down as far as could be, they needed a new comfort blanket for the client, suddenly ROI was everything and econometric departments sprung up, neuroplanning systems developed to test that every pound spent would yield the greatest return, somewhere in all of this truly great creative was lost and truly great creative can and often should decide the medium, instead we are left with formulaic solutions that offer little more than mediocre results but the clients are happy because the marketing team have the stats to convince that a 1% shift is a good achievement. We have become an average industry obsessed with our social media strategies, content engagement policies and whilst it is true that we have moved to a world of Prosumers not consumers, even in this world, truly great creative can and should be at the heart of the process.

  3. John

    I don’t think this is a new thing at all. I’m not sure it was ever normal to be able to recall unprompted an ad and it’s less likely now because of the increased volume of content we all suffer. That said, I’m not sure recall was ever that important. Impact yes, conscious recall no. Subconscious recall is another thing entirely.

  4. The problem is that the types of agencies that are traditionally briefed to create TV advertising are obsessed with the metaphorical approach to communicating a message and singularly focused on the aesthetics of production. The client gets wrapped up in all of this and the TV ad becomes the beginning and the end of the consumer experience.

    What they need to do is view TV advertising as a phase in an overall campaign which includes innovative thinking and digital engagement (people actually interacting with the brand through content and experiences).

    TV advertising and innovative solutions are not mutually exclusive.

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