The “Turing Slip”

Tivo and the future of advertising

You know how the TV industry went bonkers back in 1999, when the Tivo came out and let people fast-forward through ads?

TV execs put so much pressure on Tivo that the company removed the way-popular “30-second fast-forward” option. (Actually, there’s a simple hack that restores that option, but whatever.) Tivo users are thus left with the normal-speed fast-forward — which renders ads visible, albeit in super-fast jerky-action mode. TV execs still aren’t too happy with that, since they’re understandably worried that most ads will lose their impact when seen that quickly.

But apparently they don’t. A recent study by Procter and Gamble found that Tivo users who view ads on fast-forward speed have the same retention rates as those who view them at normal speed:

The surprising research has led at least some P&G marketing executives to conclude that TiVo may not pose the threat to TV advertising that many predict, according to executives close to the company. A P&G spokeswoman declined to comment on the research, saying, “We have nothing we can share publicly on TiVo.”

Of course, this may not be good news for TV execs and advertisers, because the logic works both ways. Maybe the point is that retention rates are so crappy that nothing could possibly make them worse:

“That’s probably not an unusual finding based on the way people recall things,” Mr. Schar said. “People hardly recall anything.”

I think I have a weird relationship to TV ads. I actually don’t like fast-forwarding through them. Partly, it’s because I find it can disturb the emotional ecology of the experience; television shows are, after all, scripted specifically to use the commercials as dramatic breaks. That’s not such a big deal if I’m watching a comedy, but if I’m watching a very intense show — like Firefly, a particularly spooky old X-files, or a blood-and-guts episode of E.R. — then the ads serve an important restful function, slowing me down enough to actually enjoy the next blast of narrative face-shredding. When I fast-forward through the ads, it’s just too intense. But maybe I’m a wuss.

The other point is an old one — that the ads are often the best-crafted things on TV. Advertisers spent tons more money per minute than actual shows (something like ten times as much, actually), so they usually showcase the most intriguing early experiments in TV cinematography, special effects and music. But again, I may be in the minority on this opinion.

Here’s an even better idea: I think advertisers should adopt a steganographic approach — and hide commercials inside commercials. Why not create a commercial that produces one coherent visual message when it’s viewed at full speed, and another one that emerges when you view it in fast-forward mode? I mean, how insanely cool would that be? And talk about buzz-producing! You just know Tivo users would hunt through their shows in hopes of seeing “the commercial everyone’s talking about.”

Which is really the lesson of all new technologies and the marketplace. When something comes along that appears to challenge you, don’t quash it. Figure out a way to elegantly hack it — and turn it to your use.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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