News & Views

There's No Shame in Advertising

by Chloe Markowicz

‘You do a commercial - you're off the artistic roll call,’ declared comedian Bill Hicks back in 1992. A Doritos commercial featuring Tonight Show host Jay Leno set Hicks off on a diatribe about entertainers starring in ads. ‘You're another whore at the capitalist gang bang and if you do a commercial, there's a price on your head,’ Hicks spewed venomously. ‘Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.’

We’ve come pretty far since 1992. There’s no such thing as a sell-out anymore. Remember when A-list actors had to escape to Japan to film embarrassing commercials, a la Bill Murray in Lost in Translation? A decade ago Brad Pitt would only star in 30-second spots in the Far East, but now he doesn’t mind subjecting the whole world to his cringe-inducing ads (see below).

It’s not just that Hollywood big shots have no qualms about getting closer to Madison Avenue. The same is true of musicians. Kanye West is admired for being savvy enough to juggle several brand partnerships at once. And most bands today would jump at the chance to get their song featured in a TV commercial.

So what’s changed? Well, the launch of YouTube means that if you’ve decided to star in a Japanese ad for lipstick for men, anyone can watch it. And the collapse of the music industry means that you should count yourself lucky to be making any money from music at all. But what’s really made the concept of the sell-out extinct is the changing attitudes of audiences: we’re more accepting of branding and advertising than we ever were. Watching an ad on YouTube has become a standard pastime and, in the case of some Super Bowl ads, content people actively seek out. Yet, marketers are still so wary about pushing a brand too prominently in the content they create, fearing that audiences will be turned off.

This fear is unfounded, as I discovered when speaking to Karen Nelson-Field, a senior research associate with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, a few weeks ago. In her book Viral Marketing: the Science of Sharing, Nelson-Field explains that her research found that branding does not have a negative effect on how happy people are to share your content. Instead, not featuring your brand clearly risks your ad being attributed to a competitor.

Nelson-Field recommends that the brand is mentioned in the first 10 to 15 seconds of the ad. If the customer has no idea what brand is being advertised, the ad simply isn’t effective. This echoes research from 1986 by David W. Stewart and David H. Furse who developed the idea of the ‘effective length’ of a commercial, which they defined as the time period that the viewer recognised which brand was being advertised. So if someone is watching a 60-second spot, but the viewer only figured out what the brand is halfway through, the effective length of the ad is only 30 seconds.

Advertising is all about memory building, Nelson-Field told me, so that when you get to the store you’re more likely to recognise a certain product and then pick it off the shelf. Your ad might be memorable, but if it doesn't encourage the customer to remember the brand, it’s not doing its job. ‘You can have all the media in the world, but if people cannot actually connect the dots back to your brand then it is a total waste of money,’ she said.

Nelson-Field isn’t suggesting that ads can’t be creative but that marketers need to remember that they ‘are buying media to get people to buy brands’.

Maybe brands need to stop worrying about whether or not they’re a turd in Bill Hicks’s drink, and remember that they’re making advertising, not art.