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The problem with TV ads

Too many commercials attempt to be funny or entertaining. But aren't ads supposed to tell you something about a product?

By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Remember when commercials used to actually try and sell you something?

These days, it seems like many TV ads are more about getting laughs first. And if you can actually recall what the commercial was for after you saw it, then that's a nice little bonus.

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Geico's caveman ads have proven so popular that ABC is developing a TV show pilot based on the characters.
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It's a disturbing trend for many large corporations, who may find that instead of boosting sales, they are wasting millions of dollars on advertising campaigns that simply boost the egos of marketing executives and ad agency types who dream of being the next Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen.

Advertising is increasingly morphing into another form of entertainment, and not as something that effectively conveys a company's brand message.

Some argue that, in an age in which people can easily zap past commercials with a digital video recorder or watch a commercial-free video on YouTube instead of ad-supported TV, this is a necessary evil.

"Telling and selling doesn't work as well as it used to because I'd literally just tune out the commercial. Because of that, the merger of entertainment and selling is inevitable. Unless there is entertainment value, why would I opt in?" said Jon Bond, co-founder of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, an ad agency.

Sure, that may help stop people from fast forwarding commercials with their TiVos (Charts). But at what cost?

"There are some spots on TV where people say, 'Gee, that was really cool. But what was the product?'" said Neal M. Burns, professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin.

Amusing people has gotten so critical for companies that many have lost sight of what the purpose of advertising should be.

Look, for example, at what happened with online recruitment site CareerBuilder after the Super Bowl. The company's new ad campaign for this year's Super Bowl, which substituted its lovable monkeys with an office as the jungle motif, flopped. The ads were rated poorly in several post-Super Bowl commercial reviews.

CareerBuilder subsequently decided to put its ad account up for review, a decision that enraged Chicago ad agency Cramer-Krasselt, the firm that not only created the new ads but was also responsible for the highly popular CareerBuilder chimp ads. Cramer-Krasselt wound up resigning the CareerBuilder account rather than go through a review.

Peter Krivkovich, president and CEO of Cramer-Krasselt, said he was disappointed that CareerBuilder decided to put its account up for review based on what he called the results of "unscientific polls." He added that he is concerned about the future of advertising since there is too much emphasis on entertainment.

"People have gotten confused between what is entertainment for entertainment's sake and what is actually smart marketing messaging. The YouTube generation of advertising has forgotten that," he said. "You can have a brilliant, unique, funny ad, but if it's not coupled with insight it will be forgotten."

To that end, one series of ads that many experts think have been effective in pairing humor with actual promotion of a brand is the spots for Geico car insurance that feature a group of hip, urbane cavemen who are frustrated by the fact that they are perceived as being, well Neanderthals.

"The two places to err in a commercial are all entertainment and no selling or all selling and no entertainment. Everyone watches and nobody buys anything or nobody watches. Finding the overlap is the issue," Bond said. "Geico has done a great job."

I'll admit that these ads make me chuckle, particularly the ones where one aggrieved caveman, being taken to a fancy lunch by an apologetic Geico exec, orders the "roast duck with the mango salsa" and a more recent ad showing a caveman at a therapist's office who, after his cell phone starts to ring, declares, "My mother's calling. I'll put it on speaker."

Funny 30-second spots, to be sure. And I do easily identify the cavemen with Geico. But here's a troubling development. Due to the popularity of these characters, the Walt Disney (Charts)-owned ABC television network has decided to order a pilot for a sitcom about the cavemen.

This is not a guarantee that a caveman show will ever make it to prime-time. But still, is Hollywood so devoid of new ideas that people think a 30-second commercial could wind up being the basis for a 30-minute television show?

What's next? The Aflac duck getting his own show on Animal Planet? How about the Mac and PC guys from the Apple (Charts) commercials starring in an update of "The Odd Couple?"

Or maybe the Nasonex bee could star in a romantic drama about a woman afflicted with nasal allergies, played by Melanie Griffith? That would be perfect casting since her real-life husband Antonio Banderas is the voice of the animated bee. I've even got a title..."Beauty and the Bee!"

Bond said that one risk for Geico is that if a caveman show makes it to prime-time, the characters could easily wind up quickly becoming overexposed.

"They could wear out the advertising idea due to oversaturation. Now they'll have a challenge in trying to find the next caveman. Like anything, ads eventually lose their surprise value and people will no longer pay attention to it. Doing a TV show will accelerate that process and shave life off the campaign so it might not be worth it," he said.

So big corporations should keep in mind that ads don't have to be 30-second cinematic experiences to get our attention. The lesson to be learned is that ads need to be relevant. That's why online advertising works so well.

Boring blue text links on Google (Charts) or Yahoo! (Charts) may lack the glitz and sex appeal of a slickly produced commercial but they get the job done. Sure, a big difference between a search ad and a TV ad during say, "Heroes" or "Grey's Anatomy" is that the consumer is choosing to look for something. A TV ad, more often than not, is an interruption.

"TV advertising is essentially an uninvited guest. You are watching '24', the world's about to blow up, and suddenly there's a damn commercial," said the University of Texas' Burns.

Still, Burns said that companies can make TV spots more relevant to consumers as long as they mix entertainment with actual details about the product or service.

Despite the increasing popularity of DVRs, many viewers are still conditioned to watch commercials and Burns argues that what turns people off on ads is not their presence but the fact that they often leave people wondering what the ad was actually trying to sell.

"The idea that advertising is an exchange of information is a valuable one. Humor has to have a connective relevance to the brand. I talk to people starting ad agencies and quite frankly, sometimes they don't get that," he said.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.