Response TV needs more than a new image to convince sceptics

It’s never been easy to assess direct response TV advertising, so a new tool to analyse the sector should be welcomed. But will it work? wonders Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent

As direct responses go, mine was a total failure. Laser, the TV sales company, had tried to lure me to a presentation about direct response television (DRTV), with an invitation which seemed to carry no date or venue. (They were hidden under a scratchcard panel, but I didn’t notice.) It had promised to introduce me to the “DRTV Analyser”, a new research system designed to measure and quantify direct response advertising on television.

Presumably, others were equally unresponsive, for there was a back-up letter and a phone call – and it was the phone call that finally got me to say yes. (How could I turn down those awfully nice Laser people?)

Thus it was that I found myself in Planet Hollywood last week, watching one of those interminable (but hilarious) early DRTV commercials, which offered not one, not two, but 18 different kitchen knives, each demonstrated in turn, plus assorted gadgets, for 29.99 (allow 28 days for delivery, money back if not delighted, write now to this address…).

The idea was to show how far DRTV advertising has developed. Unfortunately, we did not get the full comparison because HHCL & Partners, which has done truly innovative work in relationship-building for clients such as Tango, had to pull out at the last minute.

Another reason I remain to be convinced of a transformation is that such offers are alive and well and still to be found on channels 28, 36 and 43 of your average satellite decoder, courtesy of QVC and other channels.

Even on the terrestrial channels, direct response advertising has not moved on quite as far as Laser would have us believe, which may be one reason it is trying to dispense with the term “direct response” altogether. It would prefer us to use the term “direct marketing television” (DMTV), on the grounds that many advertisers are now using TV to build a direct relationship with their customers without necessarily urging them to make a direct response.

Indeed, between the invitations being sent and the presentation, the DRTV Analyser had been renamed the DMTV Analyser, though even some of those on the platform found themselves accidentally using the words “direct response”. The concept is a simple one: to quantify the amount of direct response/marketing advertising on TV, and analyse where it appears and who sees it, by registering every commercial that carries a phone number. It was devised by Annabel Smyth, Laser’s research manager, and she maintains it lays to rest many myths about traditional direct response ads on TV.

“There have been various claims about how much TV advertising carries a ‘response mechanism’ – often in the range 20 to 25 per cent,” she says. “Our DMTV analysis, which we believe is the first accurate measure based on BARB data, shows it represents 12 per cent of commercial airtime, equating to a media spend of about 380m. While that is lower than the figure often quoted, it is more than most of the high-spending market categories such as retail, cars and finance. The only category that spends more is food.”

Another myth, she says, is that DMTV campaigns use off-peak, low-rating airtime. According to the Laser research, 24 per cent of DMTV commercials last year reached audiences of 15 TVRs (TV are the percentage of a defined TV audience) or more, while a further 38 per cent achieved between four and 15 TVRs. And a third of the audience to DMTV advertising was delivered in peaktime – with 61 per cent of the impacts coming on ITV.

Impressive, huh? Well, up to a point. The drawback with the DMTV Analyser is that it is not the DRTV Analyser – if it were, I suspect the figures would be much as the myths suppose them to be. For by analysing simply whether a commercial carries a phone number, Laser is including a wide variety of advertising, some of which many people would not regard even as direct marketing television, let alone direct response television.

Smyth argues that there is a “DMTV Spectrum” – which ranges from traditional direct response TV (“call now to buy or get more information”) at one end to a new development known as brand response television at the other, which she defines as follows: “While these commercials contain a response mechanism, their primary objective is to deliver and build a brand or corporate message in the form of ‘this company is responsive, approachable and open for business’. Generating viewer response is an important, but secondary objective.”

The pioneering Direct Line Insurance has spawned almost 30 imitators on TV. They range across the DMTV Spectrum, from the basic, cut-price, traditional direct response advertisers such as Admiral (which uses a man in a sailor suit to present its commercials) to Guardian Direct, which cites itself as a brand response advertiser. It has tried to build brand values into its advertising, based on the sight and sound of its owl symbol, exemplified by the phone number two-eight-two-eight two-oh.

The problem with the Laser Analyser is that its DMTV spectrum goes beyond brand response television. It includes those advertisers which have simply tacked a phone number on the end of their commercials, to give the impression they’re approachable, but who don’t actively encourage their customers to ring up.

While this may, as Laser claims, be revealing, it is not yet clear what proportion of total DMTV spend is accounted for by traditional DRTV, and how much by brand response advertisers or the others paying lip-service to the idea.

But if Laser can distinguish between such groups, its DMTV Analyser could generate a good response.

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