Monday, January 30, 2006

The Couch Potatoes are in Your Store

Technology has freed them; can technology sell them?

Steve Kaufman, Editor, VM+SD

My father called from the den, waving a mechanical object the size of a shoebox.

He was in his favorite chair, facing our new color TV. What he was raving about, though, was not the color but the "clicker," a remote-control device allowing him to change the channel without getting up from that chair.

Looking back, the earth should have shaken. But, like the defining moment in the Henry James short story, "The Beast in the Jungle," a life-turning event is often marked not by seismic shifts but by the quiet tick of a clock. Life as we knew it was about to change forever, with the click of a hand-held device.

The way consumer goods had been marketed on television, viewers had always been relied on to stay on the couch, not getting up to change the channel. So if they watched "The Milton Berle Show" at 8, they'd keep it tuned to NBC all night. And, in the process, they'd watch each and every commercial. Brand marketers counted on it. After Miltie or Lucy or Sid Caesar were on, sales of Bayer aspirin and Philip Morris and Alka Seltzer soared the following day.

Suddenly, with the click of a remote-control device, we'd no longer have to leave the chair to change the channel. Couch potatoes were freed from those imprisoning chains of the TV marketers.

A decade later came cable TV, adding dozens of channels – many of them commercial-free – to the old three-network configuration. Then came the VCR, which allowed us to record our favorite programs on tape, watch them whenever we chose and fast-forward through commercials. Finally came TiVo, which now allows us to pause, rewind and fast-forward the television shows we are currently watching.

The result: The TV commercials we once couldn't avoid are now virtually invisible. Nobody has to watch a happy housewife sweeping the dirt away if she doesn't want to.

But consumer product marketers and agencies are still stuck in the 1950s, unbelievably still studying Nielsen figures, cost per thousand, viewer points, ratings shares and household viewing habits. For them, Lucy is still stuffing chocolates into her blouse, in black and white.

Want to sell Tide? The formula is still to buy time on "The View," "Martha Stewart," "Trading Spaces" and the myriad daytime soap operas. Never mind that the Tide-buyer is at work all day, or she's out driving carpool and soccer teams, and is loading up the DVR to watch those shows at her convenience.

When, then, is the right time to reach her? It would seem to be when she's making her buying decisions. In the store. Some forward-thinking product marketers not tied to doing things the same old way now realize that's the place to entice her with product information, enticing images or purely promotional messaging. In the aisles, on the shelves and in the checkout lines.

Once again, technology has stepped in, with the capability to deliver high-quality images that are centrally controlled, instantly delivered and immediately updated or changed or targeted.

You've been hearing about this stuff non-stop. But it's still being held at arm's length by retailers. Too expensive. Too experimental. Too disruptive. Perhaps. But it might also be a mistake to wait until it's too well-tested, by your competition and others.

Even the most conservative marketers have acknowledged that Ed Sullivan no longer rules Sunday night; that millions would rather pay for the cutting-edge programming of HBO than sit and watch "Joey" for free; that TV viewers now make the rules.

Couch potatoes are free at last – and they're in your stores.


  1. We do fast forward through the commercials, but you cannot usually miss what the commercial is for. We do not own (and do not plan to own) TiVo. We rarely watch anything on TV real time, most of what we may watch is VHS or DVD. I do stop for a commercial for it's entertaining quality from time to time. (especially if it is for a dog product-those puppies are cute) I really hate being bombarded at the store with extra advertising. I just like to do my shopping and get out of there LOL

  2. I think we’re entering a post-commercial period in advertising. Commercials don’t really sell anything anymore; they’re more like little pieces of disposable art

    Product placement and overall sponsorship is driving the message home better than commercials the days. Just think of how many shoes Manolo Bhlanik sold from being name-dropped on “Sex and the City.” Or how Gap, Pottery Barn and J. Peterman got more popular from being mentioned on “Seinfeld.” That’s where the real power is.