• TV Commercials – How Bad Are They?

    When my wife and I returned home from England 23 years ago, one aspect of New Zealand life we noticed was the length of the commercial breaks on television.  I could get down to the end of a long drive to pick up the mail and get back to resume watching a favourite programme, to find the commercial break still going on.

    The compensating factor was that many of the commercials were made with charm and wit.  We quickly grew to enjoy some of our favourites, which exhibited much of the flair and technique that came to characterise New Zealand film-making more generally.

    I later served on TVNZ’s board, at a time that television – so long a “licence to print money”, as British commercial television was once described – was beginning to feel the heat from commercial rivals, particularly on the internet.

    That heat has intensified over recent years.  One of the factors that has made life more difficult is the new-found ability of the average viewer to avoid having to watch or listen to television commercials.  If they cannot pre-programme their television sets to switch off during commercial breaks, most viewers are at least able to record programmes and then speed through the commercials, or at the very least they can mute their sets when the ads appear.

    These responses are surely all the more likely if the viewers expect that the commercial will introduce a distracting or irritating or otherwise unwelcome intrusion into the domestic living room.  Most viewers will know what I mean – those ads where manic faces shout and scream at the tops of their voices, where the women’s voices are shrill and piercing , and where voices seem to be deliberately distorted in terms of tone or accent so as to sound positively unpleasant.

    If challenged, those responsible for making such commercials will say that they are deliberately produced to sound like that so as to attract attention – and that they serve their purpose when viewers (or listeners) who complain have at least noticed them.  I am sure I am not alone in saying to myself that an advertiser who so gratuitously offends my eardrums does not deserve – and will not get – my custom.

    The complaint that the commercials are louder than the programmes is of course a perennial one – as is the television companies’ assurance that this is not the case.  But what the companies seem deliberately to ignore is that while commercials may be broadcast at the same level as other programming, some are made at high volume in the first place.

    In broadcasting commercials that are made to “grab attention” – in other words, to be deliberately annoying – the television companies are playing with fire in a self-defeating fashion.  By allowing advertisers to use such techniques, they are, whether realising it or not, encouraging viewers to avoid the ads altogether; they thereby reduce the commercial value of, and therefore the price they can charge for, the airtime they are selling.  It’s surely time the television companies pointed out to their advertisers that this serves neither of their interests.

    In pointing the finger at commercials that sound terrible, I say nothing of those ads whose content is an insult to the viewers’ intelligence – whoever thought, for example, that adding caffeine to shampoo, without any attempt to explain how that might be beneficial rather than simply a gimmick, could be described as “German engineering”?  Or of those ads that are repeated with such monotonous regularity as to bring to mind the tortures inflicted on the inmates of Guantanamo Bay – is there really such a huge market for insurance to cover funeral costs?

    There are of course still the commercials that are made with real flair and wit.  They often seem to involve children or dogs – the attempt to involve an Australian playmate in the building of a retaining wall, for example, is a joy.

    And there is one tv ad that should serve as a model to all those who want to get the best return for their outlay.  It has no moving film or complex soundtrack – merely still photographs and three sounds of breaking glass.  It must have cost next to nothing to make and lasts just a few seconds.  But everyone knows the six-word punchline.

    Bryan Gould

    24 June 2017

2 Comments

  1. Once was Tim says: June 25, 2017 at 3:38 amReply

    It seems we may be in tune. Any commercial that shouts at me and treats me like a fcknirriot is sure to turn me off to the product.
    I’m damned if I’ll ever buy a bloody couch or lazyboy from BigSave furniture, or take out a Youi insurance policy of any description.

    It wasn’t that long ago either, that broadcasters were telling us that commercial breaks would adhere to the same volume of the intervening programme (that is, the bits that go in between the commercials).
    That didn’t last long!

  2. Mary McLean says: June 25, 2017 at 8:39 pmReply

    Thank you Brian, my thoughts entirely. That is why I refuse to go anywhere near Harvey Normans or Noel Leemings. I can’t stand being shouted at.