Advertising's Secret War Against DVR Fast-Forwarding

Even if you watched last week's Glee premiere on DVR, there's probably one commercial you didn't fast forward through. Producers gave viewers their Sue Sylvester fix, featuring the intolerant cheerleading coach not only during the show but also in this witty Glee-themed American Express Members Project ad:

The writers, producers, and cast of Glee have teamed up with American Express's philanthropy arm, creating promotional vignettes in the Glee voice that encourage community engagement. But rather than have Jane Lynch appeal to fans, the clip features a sweat suit-clad Sue Sylvester acting as her sassy soulless self.

To the DVR fast-forwarder Sue triggers the uh-oh-the-show-is-back,-it's-time-to-press-stop reflex, causing viewers to actually watch an ad they would otherwise skip.

Advertisers realize that they lose valuable viewers to DVR—of the 33 percent of Americans that own a DVR, 56 percent fast-forward through commercials, Nielsen reports. This American Express/Fox effort is just one among network/product collaborations trying to combat this phenomenon.

Last year, Desperate Housewives producer Marc Cherry partnered with Sprint to create promotional Housewives themed vignettes that starred the Housewives and aired during the show.

During this season's Mad Men, Unileaver has made commercials that feature a very familiar faux '60s ad agency.

Both the Unileaver and Sprint ads look very similar to the scheduled programming, compelling DVR using commercial-phobes to stop their player and watch.

Like the Glee campaign, both the Mad Men and Desperate Housewives segments featured content that specifically targeted the program's viewers. While the Fox/American Express collaboration would not explicitly admit that the ads were designed with DVR viewers in mind, they did acknowledge that the campaign is targeted toward Gleeks: "In creating the MEMBERS PROJECT / GLEE campaign...  AMERICAN EXPRESS and FOX strived to speak to Glee fans in the voice, spirit and good-natured fun of Glee in an effort to inspire and motivate them to get involved and do something good for their communities," said a Fox spokeswoman. Presumably people who have DVR-ed Glee are Glee fans, and are also those most likely to stop their players upon seeing a Glee-esque advertisement.

Unlike Glee and Mad Men, Bravo tackles the DVR user conundrum in another way. Instead of partnering with advertisers to create ads that mimic the series' feel, they insert a short vignette from the show about three quarters of the way through the program. These 30-second segments depict the cast hanging around, adding no plot development.

Like the other tactics, these segments cause DVR users—who think the show has returned for real—to press stop mid-commercial break. Not only does this aid Bravo's product placement, but it also keeps viewers tuned into commercials. Once the vignette finishes, an experienced Bravo watching DVR user knows that the break isn't long enough to warrant a click through, keeping the viewer watching the ads.

The war against DVR has just begun. If advertisers realize that meshing program and advertising content will get viewers to watch commercials, they will continue exploiting this tactic. The better a commercial engages and entertains the audience, the more likely a DVR user will press stop and watch.

While DVR-ites may see this as an assault on their remote controls, this struggle is prompting at least one positive outcome: it is forcing advertisers to come up with more creative and innovative content. For DVR and non-DVR users alike, this means (much needed) more entertaining commercial breaks.

Presented by

Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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