On Commercials, Virals and the Legacy of Conditioned Expectations

Marketing leaders spend a great deal of time worrying about the changing media landscape these days, and an article on MediaPost by Gavin O’Malley this morning will only further their agita.  According to a Princeton Survey Research study, 90% of young adults use video-sharing sites.  Well, no kidding.  The only reason that figure is not 100% is that broadband has yet to penetrate the entire country.

One of the marketing leaders’ principal responses to these changes is their insistence on renaming television production as “content” production.  In their minds, “content” or “video assets” can be endlessly re-purposed with different edits of different lengths for different platforms beyond merely television.

That is good planning, even if it is nothing particularly new.  Candidly, framing a shoot as “content production” helps agencies sell something that every creative on a shoot always wants:  options and additional scenes.  Production experience will quickly teach you to get alternate takes, particularly alternate endings.  With so much of a commercial’s impact and engagement dependent on the actors’ performance, the cost of getting options on set is relatively low.  If you experiment a bit, the actor might deliver a different and better performance than you planned- -which explains roughly 75% of creatives’ bristling at dogmatic pre-testing.  An animatic is but the palest imitation of fully produced film with human performances.

Viral?  Or TV Commercial?

Viral? Or TV Commercial?

Consider the videos that have clogged your inbox over the years: Bud Light’s “Swear Jar”, the non-sanctioned VW “Terrorist”, and arguably the granddaddy of all internet virals: John West Salmon’s  “Bear”.  People forward clips like these to their friends and family because they’re entertaining, surprising and fun.  And yet, every one of these began as a television commercial, albeit an outstanding television commercial.  These may have also worked in a longer format, but thirty or sixty seconds often proves ideal for their impact.  And our attention spans.  Why?  Because we have spent decades absorbing commercial messages at these lengths; we have been conditioned to expect these clips in these concise formats.

All of which means that the changing media landscape will not suddenly render the way we have learned to tell efficiently-structured stories as meaningless.  We must still engage consumers with worthwhile messages presented in a rewarding fashion.  Technology will continue to change, but story endures.

So yes, the marketing landscape is evolving and will continue to evolve.  Change will continue to be a constant.  And so creativity must adapt to embrace and leverage new platforms but never at the cost of classic storytelling.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79