That’s Advertainment

Postcard From New York

NEW YORK—The city that never sleeps boasted unusually high numbers of insomniacs this past June—myself included. Not only did the oppressive humidity keep me awake, but living next to a loud Chelsea sports bar, I was awakened more than once by the rambunctious shouting of my neighbors: zealous soccer fans determined to cheer on their favorite World Cup team. Stalwart in their support, these fútbol aficionados were undeterred by 4 a.m. broadcasts, and camped out in their neighborhood bars to show (and voice) their support. Burrowing my head under my pillow, I prayed for silence, central air and the widespread distribution of TiVO.

Yes, TiVO. For those unfamiliar with this addictive new technology, TiVO is one of the new personal video recorders (PVRs) currently invading the market. Essentially a glorified VCR, it allows users to digitally record television shows of their choice without having to deal with a tape. By digitalizing the process, viewers now possess the ability to pause shows during their actual air time, record an entire season of “Law and Order” with a single click, and zip through boring acceptance speeches and overly familiar opening sequences (after all, one can only watch Sarah Jessica Parker’s little pink tutu get splattered by mud so many times). Far superior and simpler than the VCR, it also discerns its viewers’ television-watching habits to record shows it thinks he or she would like, and does away with the frustrating task of having to stare down a blinking 12:00.

The possibilities are immense: similar to Napster’s effect on the music industry, TiVO allows us to essentially create our own television stations, with only the shows we want to watch, whenever we want. But more importantly, TiVO gives us the technology to skip over commercials. In fact, an Ad Age article recently reported that 72.3 percent of all PVR users already zip through most commercials, Britney Spears’ salacious Pepsi spots notwithstanding. It’s a boon for viewers, but a setback for the already-slumping advertising industry.

Working as an advertising intern this summer, I frequently skim through trade publications and can’t help but marvel at TiVO’s growth. Introduced to the market only five years ago, it is scheduled to break-even by the end of this year, and has reported a threefold increase of revenue from the same time last year. Its subscriber base has climbed 124 percent since last year as well. With the downturn in the economy and dwindling advertising budgets, TiVO has the potential to severely undermine television advertising as we know it.

Advertising agencies are responding accordingly. Fearing that their products will lose eyeballs, advertisers are looking for ever-more deceptive ways to hawk their wares. For example, if you’ve been to the movies this summer, you undoubtedly noticed the string of commercials preceding the previews. Because movie-goers are the closest advertisers can get to a captive audience these days, expect this practice to become standard. To reach fickle (and TiVO-equipped) television viewers, blatant product placements are another avenue of attack. Coca-Cola’s infiltration of this summer’s hit “American Idol,” which had a set adorned with Coca-Cola paraphernalia, is indicative of marketing strategies to come. It’s only a matter of time before we see “Friends” switching from Central Park to Starbucks or Homer Simpson chomping on Krispy Kremes at the Kwiki Mart. Mmmm…Krispy Kreme.


However, despite the amount of press it has received, TiVO can be found in only 400,000 households, so there is still time for advertisers to find a solution more innovative than simply slipping their products into our favorite shows. For example, the most brilliant advertisement I saw this summer was through the dingy windows of the subway between 14th to 23rd St. Created for Target, the ad consisted of hundreds of lights mounted on the tunnel walls, so that when you speed through, you see an animated show. Unlike movie-goers, subway riders are one captive audience that would be happy to see a few amusing advertisements.

Another option, of course, is making television advertisements themselves just another form of entertainment—advertainment, if you will. Lazy creatures that we are, even the most TiVO-savvy viewer would obligingly sit through the sponsor’s spots if they were interesting enough. From the earliest days of television, when Milton Berle sold Texaco gas in drag, advertising has been a form of entertainment; now it just needs to get better.

Michelle F. Kung ’03, a Crimson editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. This summer she is working as an advertising intern in account management and pretending to work on her thesis.