A few minutes into Channel 4?s coverage of the Superbowl, Gary Imlach gracefully gave way to the first of many commercial breaks. If we couldn?t bear to miss any of the build-up, we could follow it on the information superhighway, he said. ?But keep an eye on the television, it keeps the advertisers happy.?
Earlier on in the day, during the BBC?s uninterrupted coverage of Chelsea and Liverpool in the FA Cup, the constant deliberate repetition of the sponsor?s name threatened to become counter-productive. Familiarity was close to breeding contempt. The most contemptible party to this transaction is the BBC, for agreeing to make its presenters specify the sponsor?s name all the time. But that?s another matter. The question is, what will Littlewoods and the advertisers that booked slots in the Superbowl have got for their money?
Imlach?s reference to the internet reminded me at first of Gary Lineker?s much-quoted preference for following a Wimbledon match on Teletext. There are some sports where pictures are relatively unimportant ? darts, for example, or chess. But American football is not one.
Imlach didn?t use the expression information superhighway ? hardly anybody does any more. I don?t care much for it myself, but Web and Net are words for traps. It seems to me to be adding insult to injury to encourage people to use those expressions when the traps are intended precisely for them. At least information superhighway suggests that something ? information, with any luck ? will be delivered.
What kind of information might the internet deliver in this context? Well, some advertisers and some agencies are pressing for a formal definition of what constitutes a hit on a Web site. Not unnaturally, advertisers are keen to get an idea of how many people see their ads. The internet could be a perfect medium to supply that data. The problem with advertising, as its own practitioners have admitted, is that 50 per cent is wasted, but no one knows which 50 per cent. On the Net it might be possible to gauge how many people show an active interest and how many pass quickly on.
This is an important question, especially in IT where the art of marketing has been promoted so heavily in the past two or three years. Of course, there is more to marketing than advertising, but according to Concept 20:20?s survey, advertising expenditure comes second only to direct mail in the marketing budgets of resellers. And there are obvious reasons for IT suppliers to be attracted to the idea of advertising on the Net.
Elsewhere, though, there are signs that advertisers are losing patience with the fickle nature of television viewers. The American practice is to insert ads after the opening titles of programmes and before the closing credits as well as in breaks in the body of the programmes. There has been some talk recently of doing the same thing here, in the hope of getting more exposure. Apparently it cuts down on the use of the fast-forward button when people have recorded programmes and discourages them from wandering off when they are watching at the time of transmission.
The emergence of new advertising media has prompted the advertising community to look for new ways of ensuring exposure. Sponsorship of programmes is now widespread, and in pay-per-view circumstances they are talking about cutting the rate for viewers who agree to view the ads. There seems to be an increasingly strong tacit agreement that viewers, left to themselves, would not choose to watch the ads. My own enjoyment of the Superbowl would have been enhanced hugely without the advertising breaks. It may be that on Monday 27 January large numbers of people rose early to be first in the queue to buy financial instruments from Allied Dunbar, but I can?t believe it. I should be grateful that Allied Dunbar and others helped make it possible for me to watch the event for free, but the reverse is the case. The ad was so irritating and so frequent I?d rather gamble my financial future on a nest egg under the mattress than give the company my business. There has to be something wrong with a system in which the advertisers that make it possible for the viewing public to enjoy events and productions by supporting the broadcasters end up being resented by the very people they are trying to appeal to.
The internet may tell a different story when an acceptable way is found to measure hits. One of the arguments for the Net as an advertising medium is that it makes more precise targeting possible. When a well-defined target audience can be directly addressed, the advertising supposedly becomes part of the information content of the material it surrounds.
If, on the other hand, the internet supplies confirmation that people will go to any lengths to avoid adverts, what then? The relationship between advertisers, commercial broadcasters and viewers will look very strained. There may be trouble ahead.
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