In Praise of Advertising

Most people think of advertising as intrusive and an obstacle. Whole industries (digital video recorders) attract users with the promise of skipping commercials. Those informational brochures, cards and letters in your US Mail box are called “junk mail.” And, of course, even people who relish fried spam and eggs see Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE) or “spam” as a nuisance.

Taking a cue from the film “A Day without a Mexican”, imagine a year without advertising. I started mulling that prospect after watching the Stephen King novel-made-into-a-movie called “The Langoliers”, but we’ll return to that in a minute.

I’ve made a living from online advertising, but have always thought it to be a necessary evil, even in my own life. Evil because I thought it was preventing me from seeing the rest of the “To be continued…” on Batman or Star Trek because they filled up the hour withSale Tag commercials for things I couldn’t buy. The Movie of the Night in Tucson started with half hour breaks for pitches from Oliver’s Cleaners: They’re “ah-liver” town, but then,  as the drama reached it’s dramatic conclusion,  would descend into breaking every five minutes until the mere mention of Oliver generated groans.

Initially, people were appalled that the pristine airways would be fouled with pitches for real estate and telephone service. But eventually everyone got used to it. TV started right away with sponsorships of whole programs as early as 1941 when Bulova ran a 20 second spot on WNBT  and moved quickly to the sponsorship of whole programs like Texaco Star Theater which started on radio in 1938 and moved to tv in 1948.

Today, many feel that we are saturated with ads. Pop ups on our web pages, our gas pumps and even our telephones. Pitch, pitch, pitch.

But what if there was no advertising.

Grocery store shelves lined with cans and boxes in plain brown wrappers with their contents and price in the same size standard font, because packaging and presentation is “in-store” advertising.    Movie theaters with no marquee…you have to pay for a ticket to find out what’s on because there aren’t any moving listings in the paper.   In fact, the newspaper doesn’t exist because most of them make most of their money from classified advertising (ok, not so much anymore.)   Special pricing could only spread by word of mouth so only insiders would get the good deals all the time.   No clubs or rewards programs or frequent anything prizes.

You get the point.

So, on the face of it, advertising serves a useful and necessary purpose. What got me thinking, though, was an experience I hadn’t expected.

One night about 11pm, I started watching a curious film called “The Langoliers.” The subject of the movie is not relevant to my topic.  (It’s about a collection of passengers on a flight who find themselves in a time warp.)

The relevant point is that the movie was to run from 11pm to 1am and I was not interested in staying up that late that particular night. So, having integrated my Netflix account with my new xBox 360, I logged in to see if Netflix had the movie and it did.

A confession is called for: I did not check the run time of the Netflix version, simply expecting that – without all the interruptions of commercials – I would finish the movie in 90 minutes or less…especially since I could fast forward to the same point in the movie where I had broken off to check Netflix.

I must have dozed off at some point, having seen sections of the movie before, because around 1:45am I realized I had not outsmarted the system at all. The movie was still on and when I checked the broadcast station, in fact, it was just behind my Netflix version with a second airing!

So what’s that got to do with advertising?

Stephen King and the directors opinions notwithstanding, commercials on TV had paid for someone to carefully edit the story to accommodate the run time (that message they always post before showing theatrically produced films on tv) and still tell the story in less time than it took to run the movie!

Simply viewed: I would have been in bed an hour earlier and with knowledge of the advertisers and their products that I had missed while watching the film without commercial interruption.

Knowledge is power. Think about that the next time you’re in need of something and the advertiser’s jingle jumps to mind to remind you someone is willing to answer that need and spent the money to let you know.


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