Second Screen First: The Challenge for TV Advertisers

Originally published in Magazine Brand Quarterly.

The “Second Screen” is Actually First

The industry that refers to mobile as the “second screen” obviously does not understand the significance of mobile and the current role of television.

Open on a 21st Century Family Room

An evening some weeks ago, I looked up from checking my work email to realize that all of my family members were busy on their own electronic devices. My wife was group texting friends on her phone, my 13-year-old son was playing Clash of Clans on his phone, and my 10-year-old daughter was wearing headphones and exploring YouTube on our iPad.

While not unusual these days, what struck me as interesting was the fact that we all convened in the living room to watch TV. And indeed, the television was on. And occasionally we would each look up at it in turn, only to return to the real focus of our attention on our personal screens.

This is by no means a depressing scene. There was still plenty of conversation between us— “Listen to what Amy said…,” “Dad, watch this video I found…,” ”Do you want to play Draw Something?” In fact, there was much more family conversation than there was when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and we would zone out in front of the TV. But where does this leave advertisers?

The Captive Audience Isn’t as Captivated

When I was growing up, if my family was in front of a television set that was turned on, we would watch everything it chose to show us, including commercials. Sure we complained or made fun of the commercials more often than not, but we watched them.

Fast-forward to the invention of TiVo and the ubiquity of digital video recorders. A threat to traditional advertising for sure, but still the recorded ads were being seen at least in part by a viewer actively engaged with the TV. And of course, there were still live-viewing events where nobody dared delay viewing with these technologies.

Today, however, the humble television ads face a much bigger issue as potential viewers simply choose to ignore them in favor of other activities more satisfying at a basic human level.

A More Balanced Diet

Human beings are the product of millions of years of evolution. If we draw parallels to our hunter-gatherer ancestry, which makes up the vast majority of our past, watching television would be comparable to listening to our communal shaman tell stories around the evening fire. We love the stories, but we only have so much capacity for listening to others. We also want to tell our own stories like we do on Snapchat, or simply express ourselves like we do on Twitter. We also want to explore, hunt and gather on Pinterest. Since our beginnings, we have been social animals, so it is no surprise Facebook and messaging apps take up most of our phone time as we strive for more and more frequent interactions with other tribe members.

The move away from focused TV viewing is most likely a good thing, allowing us as human beings to better balance our needs, from listening and observing to telling and creating. But it doesn’t mean advertisers should give up on what is still the largest mass-reach vehicle available. On the contrary, it’s time TV ads evolve with us.

Made You Look

For makers of television ads, the good news is that those of us with TVs still turn them on. The bad news is that our eyes are not glued to them. So how do you get someone to turn their head a few degrees and direct their eyes, and their attention, to the large screen? Sound. Specifically, interesting sound effects and standout music.

In “We Put a GoPro in a Washing Machine,” we had the opportunity to create a television ad for Downy that takes the viewer inside a washer and dryer. We jumped on the opportunity to present the harsh yet intriguing sounds of these environments. While the visuals of the ad are quite compelling, it’s the sound effects that grab your attention and hold it on the TV screen.

When it comes to music, subtle and unobtrusive scores make it challenging to get attention. Even during a live-viewing event like the Super Bowl, ads have to compete with the seven-layer bean dip and the collie who wants a belly rub. However, bold and different music can grab the viewer’s attention. For example, in the most recent Budweiser Super Bowl ad, “Not Backing Down,” the hip, testosterone-fueled soundtrack pulls the viewer into an ad that then delivers its message with simple text on a screen.

Deer in the Headlights

Of course, getting someone to look at the TV while your ad is playing is only half the battle. You also need to keep them watching. This is where interesting, beautiful, humorous, compelling or sexy comes in. Target comes to mind as an advertiser who consistently puts engaging visuals in front of our eyeballs. For the past decade, they have invented fresh new visual styles that keep us looking.

No discussion of TV visuals would be complete without acknowledging the ubiquity of the DVR and the trend toward delayed viewing. As I am skipping through commercials at 4X, I have noticed some ads perform better than others. I first noticed this when Apple was running the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads back in 2006. The ads always used the same arrangement of the same two actors in the same sparse white environment.

However, in each ad, there would be a prop, additional actor or some other new element that would pop against the white background and clue me in that this was an ad I hadn’t seen before. For me, this meant I would stop fast-forwarding to watch the ad. That is, of course, the high bar. But even if someone recognized the campaign but didn’t stop fast-forwarding, the ad has still delivered a valuable impression.

And that brings us to possibly the most crucial component to get right in the 21st Century TV ad: branding.

Spoiler Alert! This is a Commercial

Have you ever explained a brilliant TV ad to someone, but not been able to remember who or what the ad was for? That’s usually about the time you start to realize, maybe the ad actually wasn’t so brilliant.

Ideally, an ad conveys something so intrinsic to its specific brand that it is impossible to dissociate the two. But this can be a difficult task in a competitive category where there is parity among brands. That is when it becomes crucial for advertisers to visually brand their TV ads at the moments a potential viewer is most likely to look up from their phone, and definitely not just at the very end as is TV tradition. As an added bonus to this approach, good branding on a fast-forwarded TV ad can mean the difference between meaningless glimpses of irrelevant scenes and an actual brand impression.

Classic Corona ads would work well in the current living room. The ads featured a Corona bottle center screen with a clever beach scene playing out in the background, or a couple sitting on the beach, shot from behind with Corona bottles clearly in view. One glimpse at the screen during nearly any second of one of these ads clearly shows a Corona bottle in the beach setting for which the beer brand is known. (I say these ads would work well because in recent years Corona has abandoned this campaign for a look that is more trendy and, in my opinion, less significant.)

So we have established that television ads need to evolve with the times. They need to draw attention away from the smaller screens while also delivering a brand message, even when just a portion of the ad is seen. But perhaps the best payoff is when a TV ad actually makes use of the powerful smaller screen in the viewer’s hand.  

Just Another Ad, or an Invitation?

TV will continue, as least for a while, to be the most effective tool for delivering a massive number of brand impressions. But this doesn’t mean that a TV ad can’t be something more: an invitation to take action, learn more, interact or buy now. So many viewers have the power of the entire Internet conveniently in their hands at the moment they see a television ad. It is surprising how few advertisers capitalize on this fact.

When we created “We Put a GoPro in a Washing Machine,” which presents the harshness of the laundry process and establishes Downy as the protector of your clothes, we knew that viewers would have questions. So we ended the ad with voiceover and on-screen text leading to This simple addition turns an awareness ad into the first step down the path to purchase as the viewer is converted to a believer and, ultimately, a purchaser.

Surprisingly, putting a URL at the end of a TV spot is still the exception and not the norm. This is largely due to reluctance on the part of the traditional agencies that create most TV ads. As a result, the integration of mobile screen activity into television screen advertisement is largely untapped and extremely fertile creative territory. Currently, the only experimentation seems to be during huge live events like the Super Bowl. But given the state of the post-nuclear family room, is that really enough?

Make Use of the Biggest Screen in the Room

The “second screen” is most definitely first, and it is up to us as advertisers to use the television screen to our advantage. Television ads need to evolve with the times by drawing attention away from the smaller screens while delivering the right message, sometimes in mere seconds.

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