by Ron Kaufman

"Advertising exists only to purvey what people don't need."
-- Jerry Mander from the book Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television

Only the supremely naive believe they are not affected by television advertising. The entire medium of television is based upon advertising. The multi-billion dollar mega-corporations that run TV networks -- News Corp., Comcast, Viacom, Walt Disney, General Electric, AOL/Time Warner, AT&T, Bertelsmann, Liberty Media Corporation, Sony, and Vivendi Universal -- would not have been able to grow to their present size without television. It is impossible to talk about television without talking about advertising.

What is the purpose advertising? Put simply, advertising is creating a desire for a brand name or product. The idea of an ad is to connect to some phase of the consumer's purchasing experience. When people buy things, they go through many critical decisions about the need, cost and value of product. One of the generally accepted models of consumer behavior break down the decision in the following steps:

    1. Problem Recognition: The consumer decides that he or she needs something.
    2. Search: The consumer gathers information about ways to satisfy this need.
    3. Evaluation of Alternatives: He or she weighs the plusses and minuses of the alternatives.
    4. Decision: The consumer decides what to buy.
    5. Purchase: He or she buys it.
    6. Post Purchase Evaluation: The consumer decides whether he or she bought the right thing.

Good advertising will attempt to connect to one of these phases. In the modern world, advertising is not for "food," "clothing," "transportation" or "shelter." Ads are for "Campbell's" soup, "Levi's" jeans, "Nissan" cars or "Century 21" realtors. Former ad executive Jerry Mander, author of "Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television," says that advertisers sometimes argue that they are "only fulfilling the needs of people by providing an information service about where and how people can achieve satisfaction for their needs."

In his book, Mander asserts that people looking for food, clothing, or companionship will search out such things without the presence of ads. Hungry people will find food. Cold people will find warm clothes and shelter. Lonely people will find others. Human beings are resourceful enough to find what they need without ads. "Consider the list of the top twenty-five advertisers in the United States," says Mander. "They sell the following products: soaps, detergents, cosmetics, drugs, chemicals, processed foods, tobacco, alcohol, cars and sodas, all of which exist in a realm beyond need. If they were needed, they would not be advertised."


The Past

The television industry blossomed in the 1950s when affordable TV sets made their way into people's homes. Along with some short commercials, often entire programs were funded by a single sponsor. For example, NBC's The Firestone Hour and Colgate Comedy Hour variety shows were fully funded by a single sponsor. The wildly popular I Love Lucy was sponsored by Phillip Morris. As television grew in popularity and power, the force of TV ads became more respected. Airtime became expensive and ads were reduced to shorter and shorter lengths. By the mid-1950s, TV ads were brief and punchy with catchy phrases and songs. In 1955, NBC sold advertising on the show Queen For A Day at a rate of $4,000 per minute. Millions of television sets were sold each year and TV programming and advertising worked together to sell their products.

In 1965, the TV turned colorful and in the 1970s everyone was singing "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke." In the 1980s with the addition of widespread cable TV and ESPN, CNN and MTV, commercial television boomed. Throughout these three decades, television commercials became less real and more fantasy. When football player Mean Joe Green tosses his dirty t-shirt at an admiring little boy, Coca-Cola created another advertising coup. Coke does it again in 1984 when pop-star Michael Jackson's hair accidentally catches on fire during the filming of a commercial. Apple Computer strikes it big with it's famous "1984" commercial for it's Macintosh computer -- which ushers in the Super Bowl commercial phenomena. Commercials with dancing raisins, cartoon characters and talking candy bars are seen constantly.

All these commercials, with football players, pop stars, songs, cartoons, fast cars, beautiful women and snappy phrases ("I Gotta Make The Donuts" and "Where's The Beef") have nothing to do with the products. People singing a song on a hilltop says nothing about where Coca-Cola is manufactured or the nutritional value of the ingredients. The dancing frog who helps the cheerful little girl eat her Sugar Smacks cereal may actually say that it's "part of a balanced breakfast" -- and notice it says "part of" and does not specify which "part" (most likely, the sugary part). TV advertising is not about the truth -- it's not about the facts. Television advertising is appealing to something else. TV sells a lifestyle -- it sells choices -- even where there are no choices.

"The job of the television commercial is to promote 'special' qualities a product doesn't have, and to cloak its defects in a smokescreen," states Donna Woolfolk Cross in the book MediaSpeak: How Television Makes Up Your Mind. "If there is absolutely no need for a particular product, the adman must invent one. He must convince you that your health and happiness will be in jeopardy if you don't buy his product"

Cross says that some products pushed on television are advertised through completely false premises. "Bad breath was smiting the land, the righteous along with the sinners," she says. "A great panic might have ensued but for the miraculously timed appearance, at that very moment, of a cure: mouthwash." Though an American Dental Association study found no correlation between the use of mouthwash and the reoccurrence of bad breath, the product's advertising had achieved its goal. "People had been taught to believe in mouthwash."

The product Wonder Bread is a perfect example. Wonder Bread is marketed to children as "part of complete childhood." The company says "it's nutritious," yet never answers the question: "How Nutritious?" Wonder Bread is basically refined white flour, which has been stripped of most of its nutrients. Refined white flour is not harmful, but the process to create the bread mills away the vitamin-and-mineral-rich germ and bran. Wonder Bread became one of the most popular brands of bread in the United States through television advertising -- not the truth.

Professor Wonder says: "Neurons in your brain need calcium to transmit signals. Without it they can be, well, a little slow." This TV commercial, aired in 2000, goes on to say that the calcium found in the bread can "improve children's brain function and memory." The U.S. Federal Trade Commission brought charges against Wonder Bread's producer, Interstate Bakeries Corporation (IBC) because of the false claims and the ads were pulled from TV. IBC also produces the brands Home Pride, Beefsteak, Good Hearth, Columbo, Millbrook, Sun Maid, Sunbeam, Hostess, Dolly Madison, Drakes and may others. The company boasts being the largest national wholesale baker and distributor of bread and snack cakes in the United States.

One attribute that Wonder Bread does have in abundance is the quality of whiteness. TV ads incessantly push whiteness, purity and sterility to the point of paranoia. "Perhaps there is a need for cleanliness. But that is not what advertisers sell," says Mander.

"Cleanliness can be obtained with water and a little bit of natural fiber, or solidified natural fat. Major world civilizations kept clean that way for millennia. What is advertised is whiteness, a value beyond cleanliness; sterility, the avoidance of all germs; sudsiness, a cosmetic factor; and brand, a surrogate community loyalty," says Mander.

Cross agrees: "Corporate America is continually inventing new ailments in order to create a demand for their manufactured ministrations . . . We are afflicted by 'underarm wetness,' 'dandruff shoulders,' and 'feminine itching' -- not to mention 'that occasional discomfort.'"

She argues that television ads provoke a "See -- Want -- Buy" attitude that is effective across socioeconomic classes and races. Does a product just "feel right" and does the product present "who you are as an individual?" Ads try to influence your buying decisions through the illusion of lifestyle enhancement. Does it really matter which brand of gum you chew or which gasoline station you choose? How important is that tag on the back of your jeans? Advertising's job is to influence these choices.

Another interesting facet of advertising is the creation of choice. Brand loyalty is important to companies and advertisers. However, in many cases, "competition" is simply another way of selling a product. Have you seen the commercial where a mother cleans her son's clothes with two "leading brands" of laundry detergent? Now consider that the Procter & Gamble Company is the parent company of Tide, Downy, Gain, Cheer, Bounce, ERA, Febreze, Dreft, Dryel, Ivory Snow, and Bold -- all "leading brands" of laundry detergent. Competition between these products sends the same money to the parent corporation. Looking for dish detergent? Procter & Gamble also owns the brands Cascade, Mr. Clean, Dawn, Joy, Salvo and Ivory.

Joy -- "Joy makes your dishwashing enjoyable with pleasurable scents and radiant shine. Gives you suds that last and last."

Ivory -- "Mild on Hands. Hard on Grease."

All these "brands" are basically the same product, but packaged differently. If you are particular to one brand of cereal, consider that the General Mills Company produces 65 different cereals including Trix, Wheaties, Cheerios, Total, Kix, Chex, and Cocoa Puffs. "Television commercials sustain the illusion of freedom of choice," explains Cross.

"But whether we buy Contac or Dristan, Scope or Listerine, a Chevrolet or a Ford, we are expressing our unity of belief that corporate-produced things can solve our problems, soothe our fears, fill our emptiness. Which brand we buy is secondary to the primary ritual of purchase, nourished and sustained by the language of television advertising."

TV commercials say: "Never trust that generic brand."


The Present

Television advertising is big business. In 2001, Advertising Age reported that $18.6 billion was spent on Network TV advertising and $10.3 billion on cable TV ads. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that in 2002, there was more than $41 billion spent in broadcast television advertising in the United States. In 2002, the top 10 advertisers were:

Top 10 Network TV Advertisers
Top 10 Cable TV Advertisers
Rank Company $ spent in 2002 (in millions)   Rank Company $ spent in 2002 (in millions)
1 General Motors Corp. 777.8   1 Procter & Gamble Co. 386.3
2 Procter & Gamble Co. 723.7   2 General Motors Corp. 342.0
3 Johnson & Johnson 471.5   3 AOL Time Warner 243.6
4 Ford Motor Co. 437.9   4 Altria Group 161.0
5 Pfizer 401.0   5 Johnson & Johnson 138.5
6 PepsiCo 369.3   6 Walt Disney Co 129.8
7 AOL Time Warner 352.7   7 Pfizer 128.6
8 Walt Disney Co. 345.8   8 AT&T Corp. 121.9
9 GlaxoSmithKline 316.2   9 General Mills 120.9
10 Unilever 305.0   10 GlaxoSmithKline 118.1

Some of the lesser known parent companies displayed above are Pfizer (Viagra, Zyrtec, Listerine, Zoloft, Dentyne gum, Benadryl, Halls cough drops, Visine eye drops, Rolaids and others), GlaxoSmithKline (Imitrex, Flonase, Paxil, Aquafresh toothpaste, Tums, Nicorette gum, Wellbutrin and Zyban), and Unilever (Slim-Fast, Dove skin care, Lipton tea, Salon Selectives, Wisk detergent, Caress soap, Ragu pasta sauce, Suave, Lever 2000, Wish-Bone salad dressing, Vaseline and Breyers ice cream).

In 2002 the Altria Group spent $208 million for network TV ads and $161 million for cable TV ads. Altria is the new name for the Philip Morris Company, known for selling cigarettes. Altria will be the new corporate parent company for Miller and Fosters beer, Kraft, Nabisco, Post, Maxwell House, Jell-O, Oscar Mayer, Crystal Light, Planters nuts, Cool Whip, Life Savers, Philadelphia cream cheese, Kool-Aid, Altoids mints, and Gevalia Kaffe coffee. This is in addition to Philip Morris, Virginia Slims, Parliament and Basic cigarettes, from which the company derives half its annual revenue. This is my favorite Altria Group ad (click here)-- remember, this company's biggest sellers are cigarettes and beer.

TV advertising time is highly coveted and extremely expensive. Top rated shows get tremendous amounts of advertising cash. The NBC network made a fortune with its Thursday night lineup during the Fall of 2003. For a 30 second commercial spot, Friends gets $473,500, Will & Grace gets $414,500 and ER gets $404,814. The Fox network did well on Sunday nights when it got $296, 440 for a 30 second spot during The Simpsons and $251,575 for a commercial during Malcolm. Prepare on spending $272,867 for 30 seconds during ABC's Monday Night Football. Don't have it? Well, you can get 30 seconds during UPN's Rock Me Baby for a mere $26,240, $48,500 for a spot during WB's Run Of House, or $59,333 during an airing of Fox's Cops.

It is pretty clear that only companies with a lot of money can afford to advertising on television. Television advertising, especially during "Prime Time" hours, is the exclusive domain of the top 100 corporations. Only the biggest companies can spend $390,367 for 30 seconds during CBS's Survivor or $310,324 during CSI. Airing three ads one evening can cost more than $1 million.

What gets the big bucks? Ratings . . . ratings . . . ratings. Nielsen Media Research conducts market surveys each week on TV show viewership. The company then assigns each program a rating which is defined as "the estimate of the size of a television audience relative to the total universe, expressed as a percentage. As of September 1, 2003, there are an estimated 108.4 million television households in the U.S. A single national household ratings point represents 1%, or 1,084,000 households." A highly rated show means lots of people blankly staring at the screen. For example, during the last week of December 2003, the supremely moronic Everybody Loves Raymond(after about 3 seconds of watching my brain staged a revolt) on CBS had a rating of 4.9 which accounted for almost 14 million viewers. It costs almost one-quarter million dollars for a 30 second commercial during the show.

"Commercial television is not in the business of presenting programs; commercial television is not in the business of selling advertising. Nor is it in the business of selling time to advertisers," explains William F. Baker and George Dessart in their book Down The Tube. "Commercial television is, quite simply, in the business of aggregating and then selling audiences.

"In its simplest terms, the business of television in this country is the buying and selling of eyeballs."

Networks do not care about the quality of their shows. People ask, "Why do all my favorite shows get cancelled?" Whether a show is good or bad makes no difference to the TV network. There is no quality television -- there is only highly-rated television.

Baker and Dessart state that "to the broadcaster, the viewer is reduced to a different but equally precise number -- the exact price the station or network will charge the sponsor, that is, how much the sponsor is willing to pay to reach any single viewer. Thus, in the marketplace model, programming has only one function: each program must attract as many viewers as possible.

"The sole criterion becomes how effective the program is in attracting the number of viewers needed to enable the broadcaster to meet its profit goals."

The show Jake 2.0 on UPN gets more than a million viewers each time it airs. To the ratings, however, a million viewers puts this show at the bottom with a rating of 0.4. To the network, a million people is not significant and Jake 2.0 will probably not make it to next season.

Television IS advertising. TV programs ARE advertising. The medium of television shows advertising. Television sells things -- nothing more.


The Future

The future of TV advertising will be using technology and style to enhance the power to sell. There are number of techniques advertisers will use to peddle their wares.

One way is using various "product placement" techniques during the airing of program content. Rather than spending money for "spot" advertisements, some companies choose to embed their products or logos during the program. By placing products inside of TV shows, the advertiser gets abundant advertising chances during the actual program itself. One ways is to have the show's characters drink bottles labeled "Coca-Cola" or place the "Budweiser" logo on the bottom of the boxing match (see picture to the right). During the spring 2003 airing of the Fox program American Idol, AT&T Wireless, Coca-Cola, and Ford spent $26 million each to have their products displayed or discussed prominently during the show. In 2000, Coca-Cola spent $6 million to place its logo prominently throughout the WB network's series Young Americans.

When the main character of a program drives a Ford Expedition or uses an Apple laptop computer, that company is paying for the logo placement. When a car chase ends with the Pontiac Trans Am crashing through a Heineken beer truck, those companies pay millions. Ferrari paid for Magnum P.I. to drive a 308i and Ford paid for Starsky & Hutch to drive a Grand Torino.

Sometimes, products are placed in shows using a computer. In reality, the product or logo may not appear and companies such as Princeton Video Image, Inc. (PVI) and Sportvision will alter the video image, during live or pre-recorded broadcasts, and place products where their clients desire. PVI describes itself as a provider of "real-time virtual advertising, programming enhancements, virtual product integration and targeted interactive services for televised sports and entertainment events." The company says that during baseball games, it can produce "virtual advertisements, static or animated, that appear behind a batter during play and are only visible to the television audience." In the photo below, you can see how the Coca-Cola logo was placed into the soccer field during live play.

Sometimes, the digital ads are so subtle it is shocking. For example, during the CBS broadcast of the "Millennium New Year's Celebration," the company contracted PVI to replace billboards in New York's Times Square with ones that showed the CBS logo (picture to the left) -- particularly replacing the NBC peacock logo that appeared behind the new years ball with the CBS one.

Another practice of computerized product placement is to put or remove products into the fabric of a pre-recorded program. Items such as a cans, bottles, signs or logos would be digitally inserted into the TV show after production. For example, PVI and the TNT network (a division of AOL Time Warner) made a deal in 2001 to provide digital product placement to re-runs of the show Law & Order. At the time, PVI head Denny Wilkinson said, "You will be seeing brand names on cornflakes boxes, milk cartons, cola bottles, the lot, all bright and clear." This type of digital product placement boarders on the subliminal. A character will innocently walk past a "Scope" mouthwash bottle or drink out of a coffee mug with "Maxwell House" on it. The other technique is to erase logos of companies in favor of others who actively sponsor the program. For example, a beer can with "Miller Lite" could be digitally erased during Friends because the sponsor of the show is Coors Light or a "Pepsi" can is rendered generic digitally because Coca-Cola has paid millions for spot advertising.

At the time of the PVI and TNT deal for digital products to be added to Law & Order, a spokesman for the TNT network said, "We're always looking at ways to leverage our viewer relationships for marketers, in an appropriate manner." In other words, the network wants to make money any way possible without being too obvious to the audience.

Computerized product placement is on the rise in television. Some stations, however, are trying a different technology. A hardware device called the Digital Time Machine (picture to left) from the company Prime Image Inc. uses a subtle process of trimming redundant frames from live or prerecorded video to shorten programs and add an extra 15 to 60 seconds for commercials. The company explains that their product "deletes small bits of duplicate frames of audio and video throughout the entire show until it eliminates enough time for an extra commercial."

For live TV shows, Prime Image says the Time Machine will start with "a 30 second audio/video delay and reduce this delay in real time to zero by the end of the program. Thus a live feed of 30 minutes is converted to a 30 second commercial and 29 1/2 minutes of programming." The company says the removed information is "virtually undetectable" from viewers.

The companies that create television commercials also use compression technology, but in a different way. Audio compression technology is often used to enhance the volume of the commercials. It has now become common practice for advertisement producers to boost the sound level of quieter passages so there is more sound power in the range where the ear is sensitive. Because most TV programs do not use audio compression, the result is that commercials are often perceived as louder. In actual decibel range, there is no measurable difference between the programs and the commercials. However, the technique of audio compression will essentially boost the sound.

The real future of TV advertising is that advertisers will determine the amount of commercials and the types of programs aired on networks. A number of reports produced by the FCC's Media Ownership Working Group highlight the coming trends in the television industry.

A report entitled "Empirical Aspects of Advertiser Preferences and Program Content of Network Television" (released in December 2003) states that advertisers -- not viewers -- will ultimately be determining the types of programs shown on TV. The report explains:

"Broadcast television represents a unique market where a public good is provided by privately-owned, profit-driven firms . Broadcast networks supply the public good, receiving no revenues directly from viewers. The networks obtain revenues by combining this good with advertising, which viewers may watch in order to receive the good. The networks then sell commercial time to advertisers. This unique disconnect between consumers and purchasers of broadcast television services creates many thoroughly explored market imperfections.

"As theory predicts, market failures may occur when markets supply a public good. One such market failure is the distortion in program choice stemming from advertisers’ preferences.

"Advertisers prefer programming content that best 'frames' their advertising. Such content tends to be light and 'unchallenging.' Viewers preferring darker and more challenging content go under-served. Using a unique data set, we found that advertisers pay a premium for sitcoms and programs with younger casts, while news programming and police dramas receive a discount. Of the programs in our sample, there were seven news magazines, five police dramas, and 38 sitcoms, so that advertisers’ preferences appear to drive programming content.

". . . the development and rapid spread of cable and satellite television can be attributed at least in part to the market failures inherent in over-the-air, advertiser-supported television."

More than any other time in TV history, advertisements will drive the aired content. Television has always been influenced by advertiser desires. In the world of megacorporation-media-control, not only will programming specifically suit advertisers, but it will become more numerous as well.

In a report entitled "A Theory of Broadcast Media Concentration and Commercial Advertising" (released in September 2002), the FCC concluded that in the cases of media concentration they studied "the broadcaster's profit-maximizing response to increasing industry concentration was to increase the fraction of broadcasting devoted to advertising." The FCC found that this resulted in an increased demand for advertising time and an increase in the price for commercial air time.

Advertising on traditional television may eventually take a backseat to the emerging phenomenon of interactive television. Interactive television has the ability to monitor and track what individual viewers watch and purchase. Interactive TV firms will then keep demographic databases full of information for potential advertisers and corporations and be able to specifically target ads to individual viewers. The interactive TV will then change and react to a viewers habits and purchases to maximize profit for the advertiser.

Advertising is not evil. Capitalism is not bad. The point of looking at the connection between ads and TV is not an indictment of American business or a manufacturer's efforts to buy or sell. The goal is to recognize that television is really nothing more than a way to transmit vivid and compelling advertisements into people's homes. Product placement combined with subtle digital ads combined with more commercials combined with interactive television will make television basically one long commercial.

Who cares! I don't watch the commercials!

Yes you do. If you are watching television, you are watching commercials.

And now, a word from our sponsor . . .



© 2004 by Ron Kaufman

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