Saturday, May 08, 2010

Fourth Screen

Some like being number one, and it takes two to tango. Me, I like three of anything. Whether it's strikes, wishes or Close Encounters (or examples, for that matter), it's a number that just feels right. The faithful might say it stems from the Trinity. Numerologists might say it's because it's the number of sides in a triangle, the strongest of geometrics. And in Chinese the word for "three" is similar to the word for "alive." In any case, most would agree that something is definitely missing if there are only Two Bears, Two Pigs or Two Blind Mice. And there's no way that Two Stooges would be anywhere near as funny as three.

But we're a society that has to have more of everything. And so as comforting as three can be, we have to push the boundaries. Not content with the three dimensions of length, width and depth, we've added the dimension of time. Taco Bell stays open late so that if you're hungry after having breakfast, lunch and dinner, you can get something to eat for what they call "Fourthmeal." And now Nielson says that advertisers actually have four different screens as entries into our wallets.

The first screen was the granddad of them all, television. However, its decline and the decline of the audience watching it are well documented. The computer offered up screen two, one that is ubiquitous on desktops and in laps everywhere you look. And screen three is the mobile one, which started out as a three-line display on a phone the size of a boot, and has evolved, courtesy of Steve Jobs, into the iPhone and iPad. But in more and more places you go... the checkout counter at the grocery store, the health club, even an elevator... you don't need to take anything out of your purse or off your belt to be bombarded with ads. Just open your eyes, and you're likely to see a screen offering up short pieces of information which serve as bookends for innumerable ads. Taken together, this flat panel, location-based world, is know as the Fourth Screen.

It would be easy to dismiss this as little more than moving billboards if not for the numbers. In Nielsen's survey, they looked at 10 different place-based networks. These included Zoom Fitness, which provides programming at health clubs, and GSTV, which has screens at gas pumps. They found that for the last four months of 2009, adults 18 or older were exposed to 237 million video ads per month just by looking up in doctors' offices, bars and elevators. That's an awful lot of promos for Jimmy Fallon... and he's still not funny.

How does this compare to more traditional forms of broadcast media? In October of 2009 the average audience for a prime time commercial was about 3 million adults. In the same period, ads on NCM and Screenvsion's services, which run before the feature starts in movie theatres, reached had an audience of 61.7 million. So in just this one venue it would take 20 commercials to reach the same number of people who plopped themselves down with their popcorn and weren't going anywhere until "Couples Retreat" was over.

Much to advertisers' delight, these audiences are truly captive. At home you can get up and go to the bathroom during a commercial, or speed through them on your Tivo. No one makes you click on the ads that pop up on your computer; likewise on content you access through your phone. But if you're in an elevator, waiting for the movie to start or somewhere around floor 63 on the Stairmaster, its hard to look away when Rachel Ray tells you what's cooking today.

In urban and suburban planning, they call it "creep" when one type of zoning starts to bleed into the next. And so it is with advertising. Pandora, which started as a commercial free internet radio service, introduced display ads several years ago and now includes audio versions of the same. Facebook is looking to team with advertisers to extract data from your friend list to target you when you check your wall. And Twitter has announced plans to add to its 140 characters, giving a few more to marketers in the form of "promoted tweets." It's probably inevitable, but perhaps manufactures would make better use of their budgets if they followed the admonition of the great Will Rogers: "If advertisers spent the same amount of money on improving their products as they do on advertising then they wouldn't have to advertise them at all."


Marc Wollin of Bedford only watches the commercials during the Super Bowl; otherwise he scans past them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

No comments: