July 2007 - Per Inquiry

The Rules of Engagement

By Rick Petry

As long-form advertising enters its third decade, the three-pod format crowded with proof-driven ingredients and capped by a call to action has become as bound to convention as a sitcom and as mentally nutritional as a chicken nugget. This wasn’t always so.

As the first decade of the infomercial era dawned, an advertising agency out of Portland, Oregon, known as Tyee-a group this author was once fortunate to be a part of-pioneered the storymercial. One could argue that in those days, the media landscape-with far less fragmentation and rates that enabled more successes-made fertile ground for experimentation, but still it raises some interesting questions: Has the industry conditioned consumers to the point where only one format with slight variations can succeed? Which came first, viewer expectations or our own rigid adherence to a set formula? And, finally, have we lost our appetite-better put, our nerve-for innovative approaches?

Don’t get me wrong-conventions have their place. The use of the rhetorical question along the lines of “Oh no!! Are you tired of…?” to arrest attention is likely to elicit a curious Pavlovian response from TV viewers that tees them up for the sale. And just when you thought that that approach couldn’t be more base, along comes the Head On commercials that eschew any attempts at subtlety to, well, bash their message over your head. (Speaking of self-fulfilling, this is a migraine-inducing approach that creates a need for the very product being advertised.)

I’m simply wondering if there aren’t more sophisticated alternatives, especially given the amount of competition for people’s attention that exists today. An important concept underpinning a storymercial like Apple’s 1994 “The Marinettis Bring Home A Computer,” which Tyee co-produced with hawthorne direct, was that it could actually compete with entertainment programming by engrossing viewers in a narrative that still conveyed basic product features and benefits, but did so using a storyline and characters. It accomplished this, dare I say, artfully. And, although it is executed with varying degrees of deftness, isn’t this the very crux of the product placement-laden branded entertainment that populates primetime network programming these days?

If you attend ERA’s various global events, then you no doubt travel frequently. Have you ever noticed how such journeys-especially those to foreign lands-seem to heighten the senses? You may be in a museum gallery or a church in some far-away land and find that the experience is made extraordinary by a heightened sense of smell, light or color. In those moments, we are free of the usual; we’re out of our box. If we could bottle that sensation, that energy and take an occasional swig as we go about our business, what might be conjured up? The Internet offers us a new canvas on which to wield a non-linear brush of sight, sound and motion. It frees us from the shackles of convention that are our own invention. Time will tell whether we have the courage to liberate ourselves.

Rick Petry is a freelance writer and consultant to the direct marketing industry and the current chairman of the board of the ERA. He can be contacted at (503) 740-9065 or via e-mail at [email protected].


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