TV ads at 60: how the formula has changed

Emotional engagement and multichannel content have replaced product-driven ads.

Monty Penguin
TV cover story at a glance

As it reaches its 60th birthday, UK TV advertising has evolved from being information-heavy to prioritising clever creative that triggers emotion and uses humour to entertain viewers.

Targeted content that can transfer across different screens and marketing channels is also rising up the agenda, thanks to changing consumption habits and new technology for media buying. So is the creative formula – and the motivation – for making TV ads fundamentally different from the 1950s?

TV is the ‘tip of the iceberg’

Investment in TV continues to grow. The latest report from the Advertising Association and Warc recorded the highest ever Q1 spend on TV spot advertising, up by 11.5% to £1.2bn. The Rugby World Cup is expected to boost Q3 investment and the 2015 full-year total for all TV spend – including both spot ads and TV on demand – is forecast to beat 2014’s £4.9bn record by 6.9%. Full-year growth in spot ads alone is predicted to be 6.4%.

But Jemma Jones, manager of marketing communications at Honda Europe, believes brands must now use TV as a springboard to go beyond the product, and extend their ideas into other areas. “It plays to our strengths, the diversity of the brand and the creative opportunity that it opens up,” she says.

“We try to go beyond the one-directional approach that a lot of our competitors adopt. That means Honda has many touch points beyond products – it’s about a longer-term emotional link and relationship with the consumer. TV is critical for delivering that.”

Where TV ads from decades ago differ from today’s marketing communications is the various points at which consumers can come into contact with a brand, particularly online. Honda says when a brand campaign is live on TV it sees a 400% uplift in visitors to its website, so while the TV element is key the brand always has a digital component too.

To accompany a recent spot for the Honda CR-V model the brand created what it claims is the first never-ending YouTube ad, called ‘The Endless Road’, which replicates the weather and time of day of the viewer using location data .

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing and international at Marks & Spencer, says similarly that TV advertising is now “the tip of the iceberg”. It acts as a point of departure for additional content and ideas executed in other marketing channels.

As an example, the brand created several different formats for its autumn fashion campaign to work cross multiple channels (see ‘Paddy Power, M&S and McVitie’s on the role of TV advertising‘).

For Microsoft, TV is the anchor for the brand’s main creative ideas, but campaigns are adapted locally from there. This is because it is known for different things in different regions: while it is a product and service-based technology company in the US and UK, in Africa it is seen more as an infrastructure company, working on school and government IT networks.

“Essentially, we’re not starting our story in the same place in every country in the world,” says Philippa Snare, chief marketing officer at Microsoft UK (see Q&A here). “What TV enables us to do is get everyone on the same page initially before we then start thinking about bespoke content for each country’s individual needs.”

Emotion and affinity over product

Microsoft returned to the TV screen this summer with an ad to launch its updated operating system Windows 10 that revealed another trend in today’s creative formula – a shift from product-heavy to emotive advertising.

McVitie’s did the same with its ‘Sweeet’ campaign, featuring assorted animals emerging from its biscuit packets. “Biscuits are ultimately trivial, but people have an emotional connection to them – and campaign serves to bring to life the emotional feeling you get when you eat a biscuit,” says brand director Kerry Owens.

“What is important in a TV creative depends on what you are trying to convey about your brand and the sort of connection you wish to build with your target audience.”

A shift has taken place over the years from telling viewers about a product to driving affinity for a brand through emotion, according to Leo Burnett executive creative director Justin Tindall.

Leo Burnett has worked with McDonald’s in the UK for over 20 years and believes that the brand is an example of this shift. Tindall says in 2009 the agency started creating advertising that was purely made to drive affinity for the brand, starting with its ‘Just passing by’ creative, claiming it was the first ad that was “an articulation of the role the brand had in people’s lives”.

“There is a growing move towards emotive advertising that is not necessarily offer-, product- or promotion-focused but more about driving a positive relationship with the viewer and the brand,” says Tindall. “That is because we have to. The world has changed and the purchase funnel that advertising was driven towards is irrelevant – the consumer holds the power now.”

This is a consequence of the globalisation of television and advertising, claims Nick Gill, executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), who says that prompting emotional responses has a universal effect. Arguably the agency’s famous ‘Launderette’ ad for Levi’s 501 jeans starring Nick Kamen in 1985 was ahead of the trend.

Gill says: “The two biggest changes I have seen [in TV advertising] are the globalisation of television and our industry and the explosion of media and technology, which have completely changed the face of our industry and made it a more interesting world. Film is now part of a bigger brand story.”

He adds: “Brands have tapped into very simple human emotions. The kinds of things that motivate us all: individuality, making the most of every day, love, death, fear, laughter.”

Perhaps the most famous proof of Gill’s point it Cadbury’s popular ‘Gorilla’ spot made by agency Fallon. The link between a gorilla drumming to a Phil Collins song and Dairy Milk chocolate is purely emotional and not in the least bit rational.

Lindsey Clay, chief executive officer at Thinkbox, says: “We know from different studies that the most effective campaigns are the ones that are highly emotional, the objective is about driving emotion.”

However, Clay argues that the rise of internet technology and the possibilities of extending stories beyond the 30-second TV ad has helped TV’s shift towards driving brand affinity rather than product because it’s “taken a lot of the pressure off TV for delivering highly rational call-to-action information”.

Storytelling, therefore “has got more complicated but TV remains the staple for how that is communicated”, according to Rachel Bristow director of partnerships at Sky Media, who warns that “the importance of getting the creative message right and the emotional connection has stood the test of time, and if you miss it you don’t end up with a successful campaign”.

Event TV and ‘linear’ viewing

The increasing use of tablets, smartphones and social media during ‘linear’ viewing of TV programmes as they are broadcast has created ‘second screening’, where viewers watch TV but also tweet, for example. Brands are capitalising on their TV ad spend by creating apps to play along with what’s on the screen, or hashtags to spark conversation on social media to reap the benefits of that engaged audience.

Tindall at Leo Burnett also believes that linear viewing of ‘event’ TV such as The Great British Bake Off, The X Factor or Game of Thrones is more important than ever, as more brands and advertisers book “roadblock three-minute ads” filling an entire commercial break. “The hope is that the quality of the content is going to be so high that the people talking about those programmes will also talk about the advertising,” he says.

The main way people watch programmes continues to be at the time of broadcast. However, according to the latest communications market report released by Ofcom last month, time spent viewing traditional linear TV has fallen from 3 hours 45 minutes per person per day in 2010 to 3 hours 13 minutes in 2014. Viewing of programmes previously recorded on devices or through catch-up services has grown over the same period from 17 minutes a day to 27 minutes a day.

Last month Trainline rebranded itself from and launched new its branding with a TV spot called ‘I am train’ that featured during Saturday night’s X Factor. For Simon Darling, commercial director at Trainline, the key is to use a range of different formats, not just the 30-second ad in event TV.

He says: “We can see when we put out 10-second ads rather than four-minute ads, they do a slightly different job. The short ones do a good job of driving downloads and ticket sales there and then, whether it’s during the day or in the evening; [longer advertising during] event-driven TV like X Factor is really is good for the emotion.”

When creating TV content today brands are required to think about how it plays out across different media and channels, ensuring a range of formats are available. Clay at Thinkbox believes this has created a more “demanding environment” for advertisers just to keep up with the basics of what is possible, but warns that “it’s TV-and, not TV-or” in the industry now.

Gill at BBH agrees with the sentiment: “Clients are waking up to the possibilities afforded by the new world. People understand that you can’t put something out there and leave it alone; there are so many more ways you can enrich a brand story other than a standalone film.”

It is difficult, admits Trainline’s Darling, and “will remain difficult”, but the key is a strong core idea that works across channels. He adds: “If you get that core idea right it makes life a lot easier and you don’t have to work that hard to make it work everywhere.”

For the ‘I am train’ campaign Darling says Trainline had a lot of ideas during the four-month pitch process but that particular idea stood out because it works through all media.

Content for a multichannel world

As well as numerous channels for viewing, there are many new tools available for TV media buying now. Using technology to track audience viewing habits and targeting content with that data is something the likes of Channel 4 and Sky are well versed in, thanks to their All 4 and AdSmart platforms, respectively.

Bristow at Sky Media argues that use of targeting sees brands that have not traditionally been on TV come onto the channel, particularly regional brands. “Technology is allowing more brands [to create TV ads] and more executions of TV because with targeting you can have specific messages,” she says.

However Bristow claims that although brands are learning day-by-day about different channels and how to use the technology along side branding campaigns, it “takes a while for agencies to incorporate new thinking”.

Being able to see the effectiveness of TV is an area that Darling at Trainline believes will be a priority: “We are buying TV like we are buying digital media now,” he says. “We are not laying down a plan for two months and leaving it. We watch how each spot does and change it according to the 12-minute window after the ad is aired to see if it drives downloads or sales.”

It’s clear that while the fundamental idea of driving sales and brand awareness through TV advertising hasn’t changed dramatically since 1955, the ways and means of doing so has.

TV advertising has not only adapted to the way people behave, but has also grown up. Ad creative now needs to be compelling across all media channels in a world where consumers are taking more control over their viewing experience than ever.

  • Do you want to ensure your brand’s campaign gets the recognition it deserves? Enter the advertising category in this year’s Masters of Marketing. Go to the Masters site for details of how to enter.

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