Reinjan Prakke
📖 9 minutes

Why tv commercials are getting more boring every year

This blog was written in Dutch for Adformatie and has been automatically translated into English.
Something snapped. It wasn’t anger anymore, no frustration, no desperation. I had long surpassed those stages. I admitted defeat.

It must have been about five years ago when I was in the editing room for a commercial for a major pharmaceutical company. Right from the start of the project, the advertising agency indicated that the client tends to approach things in a very data-driven manner, has a rather hierarchical organizational structure, and there seems to be little affinity with creative processes. A reality we often face, so not necessarily something to be alarmed about.

But indeed, the expectations created by the agency are quickly met. From day one, there is a squabble with the client over the dialogue of the celebrity in the commercial. The creative team and director are on the same page, but the ‘Legal’ department ruthlessly pushes through changes that significantly affect the credibility of the TV commercial.

The shooting day, which the client could not (or did not want to) attend, goes smoothly, and we confidently start the editing process. In fact, against all odds, it turns into quite a nice edit. The acting is decent, the visuals are pleasant, and honestly, the text from legal isn’t too bad either. The video is then emailed to the client, who at that time is in another country, so the waiting begins.

Days later, the first reaction arrives…

They had a neuroscientist analyze the commercial, and it was found to be most effective to pause the video at exactly 5 seconds, right in the middle of the dialogue of the first scene (!), and show the offer, which logically is at the end of the commercial. Moreover, the logo must be continuously displayed, quite large, in the top right corner, and they want the logo animation to be visible both at the beginning and the end. All of this because research showed that this way, the message and the logo would stay top of mind the longest.

Now, everyone knows; clients sometimes come up with bizarre ideas, but generally, they are not insane. When you show them how weird their suggestion looks, reason usually prevails. But not in this case. They are satisfied. When we, fearing they might actually approve this edit, start to make a fuss, it noticeably irritates them. Why would we ignore science? The numbers speak for themselves, and “that’s what we are all judged on.”

The agency, which by now is worn out, manages to make the logo in the corner smaller, but then throws in the towel. The damage is done; there is no turning back.

We have never felt so defeated before. Used, treated as inferior and incapable. Because if every reasonable argument about the structure of a story loses to numbers, if any sense of aesthetics loses to a chart. What are we still doing here? Why not just flicker a logo with offers on the screen, put the sound logo on repeat, and abandon the whole idea of telling a story?

This number fetishism is what I have been seeing, with the rise of a thousand and one monitoring tools, increasingly over the past 14 years. Not always on this unprecedented scale, but quite frequently in a way that a lot of creative input loses to numbers. The soft truth of a director or advertising creative usually loses to the hard numbers of the neuroscientist or the statistics of the media agency. But numbers say a lot, but not everything.

Anyone who has ever made a case film knows that you can manipulate numbers to your advantage. Is the reach of your podcast disappointing in terms of numbers? Add up the total listening minutes and it suddenly sounds quite reasonable. Is your app hardly being used? Just show the number of downloads.

Where does this come from?
When I read (or rather listen to) the book Identity by Paul Verhaege last year, many things fell into place. The professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ghent links number fetishism to a much broader context; that of 40 years of free-market operation, privatization, and digitization. He describes the relationship between these societal trends, our identity, and how numbers and control-freakism are winning over creativity and happiness at the workplace.

Using two passages, which he naturally substantiates with examples in the book, I want to share a few of his insights.

As a scientist, I harbor a deep mistrust of statistics. With the same data, one can head in many different directions in the social sciences - and I include economics in this. Moreover, the way in which the figures are generated is, in many cases, open to debate (I'm being polite), and without a master's degree in advanced statistics, it is impossible to pass judgment on their reliability. The main illusion with all these figures is that they claim to provide an accurate representation of 'the' reality. For the majority of them, it is rather the opposite: they create a certain image of reality, in order to conform to pre-existing expectations that are always based on a more or less hidden ideology. Subsequently, this image guides decision-making, without any further reflection - 'the figures are clear'.

In other words, numbers are extremely interesting, but even the neuroscientist has a bias. The media agency makes mistakes too. And last but not least; all parties have an interest. The interest that at the next measurement the numbers have changed, as that means the advice has proven to be effective. The interest in selling more hours and measurements, because money needs to be made. And the advertising platform’s interest in indexing the type of content that is visible on their own platform.

For the record: any form of IT doom-thinking is alien to me. However, this does not change the fact that digitization, like any technical innovation, can amplify certain human obsessions, in this case, the need for control and predictability. Today, just pressing a few keys is enough to produce statistics, with beautifully colored diagrams in all possible shapes, creating an illusion of control. The speed at which these statistics roll out of the printer means that there is simply no time for reflection. The naive faith in spreadsheets and the like surprises me time and again. God is dead, but everyone bows to the numbers. How they came about and whether other interpretations are possible, we usually do not ask ourselves.

Monitoring tools as wrecking balls
All the tools that give us insight into viewing and listening behavior and measure the effectiveness of our campaigns; it's all very valuable information, but we give it too much weight. And through this book, I have come to realize that it is more harmful than I thought.

First of all, in our obsession with control, we gradually dull creativity. The logo? Please show it within five seconds. The conclusion of your message? Put it at the front. The length of your video? The shorter, the better. And delivery? In portrait, landscape, and square format, please. Confined by a straitjacket of rules, the creative, and all other creative professions in the chain, must get to work.

This also affects the job satisfaction people experience. How many creatives switch agencies hoping to do different work? How much work do directors produce that really showcases their talents? How many cameramen are frustrated on set because they are expected to shoot beautiful footage while cramming three different ratios into one shot?

But the most bizarre part of all this; campaigns are becoming less effective. One Google search quickly leads me to various studies showing that the focus on clicks and sales in the short term has devastating effects on brands in the long term. For example, look up the research by Peter Field and you’ll see it confirmed time and again.

By now, I am convinced that we can only tame the beast with its own weapons. So perhaps there is a neuroscientist reading this who could measure the percentage of commercials that still genuinely make people laugh, give them goosebumps, or otherwise move them. And then we’ll compare that to the ridiculous amount of content we as an industry produce these days.

Maybe that chart can restore some balance…

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Jordan Stumey
CEO, Webflow