When I left home for college 30 years ago, we had a family room with a big TV console. It was an electronic altar surrounded by a couple of sofas and chairs. For as long as I could remember, our television set had 7 channels: the 3 networks, 3 local stations and PBS. (We were lucky – seven was a lot because we lived in New York!)
The TV controlled our lives. Dinner was scheduled around the start times of our favorite shows, or, as we called them, programs. TV Guide dictated when we did our homework and chores.
When I came home after graduation four years later, there were three new objects in the family room. Three rectangular black boxes of varying shapes and sizes.
One, the smallest, was a remote control device, or as we called it, the flipper. Suddenly switching channels didn’t require us to get up and walk all the way across the room and manually turn the dial. (I say “all the way” because common wisdom back then was that the TV exuded dangerous radiation and could damage your eyes unless you sat 12 to 15 feet away.) Now you could watch two games at once if you cut away during commercials.
Another was a cable box. Now, instead of the 7 original channels, we had 32. An increase of nearly 500%. Many of the choices were pretty cheesy, but then again, there was ESPN, HBO, MTV and CNN.
And lastly, there was a VCR. This box allowed you to record shows on a blank cassette – so you could watch them whenever you wanted. It also allowed us to rent and watch movies like “Flashdance,” in case there wasn’t anything better to watch on the 32 channels.
Suddenly, the TV didn’t seem so omnipotent. Viewers had a lot more options. We – with the help of the three black boxes – had wrested back some control of lives. The balance of power had shifted towards the consumer.
And that wasn’t the only thing that changed. The ads changed, too. Suddenly, they had to be a little nicer and more respectful. Friendlier and funnier. Sponsors could no longer shout at, berate or hammer away at their newly empowered consumers. Their captive audience wasn’t quite so captive after all
This shift of control from the media to the consumer has continued unabated for the last 3 decades. 32 channels became many hundred. The VCR was replaced by the DVR, making it easier to watch whatever, whenever– skipping the ads altogether. Pay-per-view lets you watch movies without driving down to the Blockbuster. And then ... video games and the Internet happened. Enter YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Facebook. Entertainment options are now virtually infinite. And many people under 25 don’t even own or watch TVs.
Advertising has evolved to accommodate the changing dynamic. So much so, we don’t even like to call them ads anymore(Branded Content? Mobile Apps? Facebook Pages? Viral Videos? Product Placement? Podcasts. Pre-Roll?) Ads need to be even more entertaining, rewarding and beneficial.
Yep, the world has changed a lot in a relatively short period of time. Marketers that understand this evolution – and act accordingly – will succeed. Remember, people still like to get news, sports, comedies, drama, music and other content – for free. And they still like informative ads that enrich them for participating.