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No Fluffed Lines: A Brief History of Live TV Ads

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John Cameron Swayze lowers a motorboat propellor into a transparent tank with a Timex wristwatch attached to one of its blades. The words 'SHOCK RESISTANT' appear on the screen. "All right, let's go", he says to his studio assistant, who fires up the engine, creating a swirling vortex in the tank. He cranks the propellor up some more to send water theatrically splashing over the edges of the tank and onto the studio floor. The words 'WATERPROOF' flash up on screen.

The assistant turns the engine down and kills the ignition. "Let's lift her out", says Swayze. "Just imagine, the Timex on that propellor has been slashed through the water to the tune of forty-five hundred revolutions per minute. What a test for a water proof, shock-resistant watch."

The first sign that things are not all going to plan appears when Swayze looks down quizzically and rotates propeller around 90 degrees, searching for the timepiece. It's no longer there. He looks momentarily around his feet. Still nothing. Save for a furtive glance over to someone off-camera, presumably the director, he maintains his cool and seamlessly moves on. "It was such a test it threw the watch off in the tank. I'm very sorry about that ladies and gentlemen 'cause we had that all arranged so you would get a picture of that sweep hand still working - as it did perfectly during numerous rehearsals here tonight, I assure you."

Live TV ads Snickers Virgin Holidays Oral-B

Swayze was well known for his Timex catchphrase, namely ‘It takes a licking and keeps on ticking’, but perhaps combining a timepiece with nautical engineering was a licking too far, not least for a live TV ad.

It's safe to say that the crackling, grainy live broadcasts of the 1950s are a world away from today's modern production standards, but this particular - often peculiar - format of product promotion is still fraught with the same risks and perils as 70 years ago. Technological mishaps, performer breakdowns, acts of God - you name it, it will probably strike right when you least need it. Which begs the question: why did it make a comeback?

The Madmen Era

With TV still a relatively new medium, promotional messages remained as subtle as, well, a wristwatch attached to motorboat propellor blade. Broadcasts were as well known for their parent sponsor as their familiar, household name hosts: John Cameron Swayze hawking the Timex timepieces mentioned above, or Jack Parr performing demonstrations of the emerging Polaroid instant cameras in front of almost slapstick capers on his Tonight Show. An audience was sold to in a fashion that integrated products with the public personalities that they knew, liked and, critically, trusted.

However, with single-sponsor shows and, by definition, their integrated live ads eventually falling out of favour in the 1970s, producers created the pre-recorded commercial break in order to allow multiple brands to secure a slice of the airwaves in a more digestible, affordable format. The era of brands claiming a monopoly on generously portioned airtime was over and, in their place, entered shorter, cheaper promotional spaces. The restricted slots available to each advertiser commanded a more creative use of the limited time available, inevitably laying the foundations of the inventive marketing strategies that went on to become the norm and seemingly bury the live commercial for good – or, as chance would have it, the next 30 years.

Tech changes the rules

As is well documented, many societal changes come about through advancements in technology and the advertising industry is no exception. The release of TiVo's DVR (digital video recorder) at the turn of the millennium suddenly liberated audiences from having to make sure they were at home, sat in front of their televisions at the time of broadcast and instead enabled them to schedule records of live transmission for later viewing at their leisure. What was a dream for the consumer in now having the ability to fast forward through ad breaks and only commit their increasingly precious time to the core programme itself was in turn a huge problem for advertisers and, perhaps more crucially, the TV channels themselves who relied so heavily on external income.

Live TV ads Superbowl

Thus, after several years of TV companies sweating over the erosion of their previously untouchable commercial break, and a decades-long hiatus for the live TV ad, the circular nature of the universe manifested itself in no less than a live spot for Garmin's nüvi 660 personal travel assistant on Jay Leno's Tonight Show in 2007 (the death of the standalone SatNav is perhaps worthy of another article). In a bizarre bout of temporary amnesia, ad execs gushed about the 'freshness' of the live format, the 'halo effect' of associating with well-known hosts and of 'aligning with the tonality' of the programmes. (Interestingly enough, this live advertisement was immediately followed up with a more traditional pre-recorded spot for the same product, in something of a promotional one-two punch.)

Marketing moguls weren’t hesitant in taking advantage of an opening in the market and the corpse of the live commercial was hastily revived for a parade of other household brand names. SImilarly, it didn’t take long for advertisers in the UK to not only follow suit but push the boundaries even further. Honda were the first to foray into this brave new (old) world in 2008 by airing a daring live ad for the Accord during an episode of Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me, featuring a troupe of skydivers spelling out H-O-N-D-A in the sky as they fell from 14,000 feet.

Shortly after this, and back across the Atlantic, Ellen DeGeneres began integrating live promotion into her hugely popular talk show, liberally pushing products for an array of household brands such as Toyota, PayPal, Aquafresh and vitaminwater. Once other established hosts like Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel jumped on the wagon to maximise both show revenue and the platform their shows offered, it seemed the now commonplace in-built commercial was here to stay; so far this is still the case, notable by Jimmy Fallon’s live-not-live advertorial segments for brands like Smirnoff and KFC spliced into his current show.

Other notable recent outings include Virgin Holiday’s 2016 advert which live-streamed 18 different feeds from customers holidaying in various exotic locations across the world and, famously, Snickers recruiting Star Wars actor Adam Driver for a live Superbowl LI ad in which a) Driver announced the up-to-the-minute third quarter score and b) the whole piece was designed to result in utter disaster, complete with fluffed lines, mistimed pyrotechnics and collapsing sets alike. Whether this was an intentional nod to the era of John Cameron Swayze and his vanishing wristwatch or not, the parallel was there and a clever pun made on the precariousness of the format.

History of Live TV Ads

A Third Way?

While it was the DVR box that unintentionally ushered in the second wave of live commercials, technology has once again forced another refinement, if not a complete overhaul of this approach to product promotion. Media buying can now be integrated into on-demand streaming services on all devices, from terrestrial broadcaster apps like ITV’s Hub and Channel 4’s 4OD to niche vlogging channels on social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram Stories.

The current landscape for terrestrial programming could be interpreted as the ad break v2.0, where content is there to be streamed by an audience on their terms but continues to be funded through direct advertising in bona fide commercial breaks. However, in the more varied, expanded environment of the online world, where micro- and macro-influencers dwell, brands have two options: to promote in the more orthodox way using the platform’s advertising service (albeit with a much greater power to target the right audience), or to collaborate directly with the vast number of independent influencers with a sponsorship, endorsement or product donation and capitalise on the trust they garner with their own audiences.

Live TV ads Polaroid Honda Garmin Smirnoff

The total time spent watching YouTube videos exceeded one billion hours per day in 2017. The same year saw the platform break the three billion dollar mark in advertising revenues. It may be obvious to state, but the live ad cannot be the single, catch-all promotional tool it once was and neither is it a go-to solution for the next wave of obstacles technological progress will undoubtedly throw at the industry.

Ultimately, whether a brand’s live promotion comes in the form of a glitzy chat show spot broadcast to millions or a niche influencer’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Instagram Story sent to a following ten thousand strong, the core objective hasn’t budged an inch: to locate the right personas to identify your brand with and in turn gain exposure to audiences who will be trusting and loyal enough to make positive associations with your product or service.

And no, the Timex was never recovered…

Live TV Ads Infographic

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