Trying to Zap the TV Channel Zappers

When Arnold Fishman was a tyke growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he knew how to get his mom riled up. He’d flick through the dial on the TV set.

Fishman’s furious mom would come racing in from the kitchen and warn him and his two sisters that if they kept playing with the dial, it would break. That’s how Fishman and millions of kids like him learned one of childhood’s most difficult lessons: how to sit in front of the TV set without turning the station. It was a child’s nightmare, but an advertiser’s dream.

These days, Fishman is chairman of one of the West Coast’s largest advertising research firms, Lieberman Research/West. Major advertisers rely on his firm to find out how to get consumers to stop turning the dial--or in 1991 lingo, stop zapping. It’s never been harder. And marketing experts say it’s not likely to get any easier in 1992--or ever again.

Among the more fruitless New Year’s resolutions that advertisers and their agencies will make this year is to get consumers to pay more attention. Virtually every advertiser is searching for the answer to this multibillion-dollar dilemma. It may be Madison Avenue’s philosophical equivalent to finding the Holy Grail.


Some say the problem is the increasing clutter that makes most commercials irrelevant. Others say it is that consumers don’t really think that the things advertisers say are relevant to them.

But Fishman--who charges companies thousands of dollars for his research--says it wasn’t just the widespread use of the remote control that changed things for TV advertisers. What really happened, he says, is that parents stopped being gatekeepers.

“We got our first TV in 1951 when I was 6 years old,” said Fishman. “I can’t tell you how many times my mother accused me of turning the dial too quickly.” And it worked. He learned not to turn the station. These days, he says, “there is no (parental) incentive to keep the TV channel in place anymore.”

So, advertisers--and their agencies--need new incentives. Today, one in five consumers ignores TV spots. Five years ago, the figure was one in seven, according to the New York research firm Video Storyboard Tests.


Even something as deceptively simple as producing more creative ads isn’t the answer, points out Dave Vadehra, Video Storyboard Tests president. “Not only are fewer people paying attention to ads they see, but fewer people have their TV sets on at all,” he said. “It’s a very, very serious problem that advertisers have managed to ignore over the years. But I don’t think they can continue to ignore it.”

For advertisers, the documentation of the problem has never been so thorough. For nearly a decade, the Chicago-based research firm Information Resources has used high-tech equipment to monitor what commercials families watch--and what these same families purchase at the supermarket. The results of its recently released study reveal that when companies pump more money into advertising, the majority of the time sales don’t increase.

In fact, less than half the big packaged goods makers that it studied saw sales rise when more money was spent on ads. “Advertisers can’t just spend more money and expect results,” said Gian Fulgoni, chairman and chief executive of Information Resources.

So what can advertisers do?


The New York agency J. Walter Thompson is pressuring the networks to cut back some of the clutter by refusing to pay top dollar for ads that appear on shows with too many other spots.

But by creating so many 15-second TV spots, ad agencies such as Thompson are as much to blame as the networks are for running them, says Lee Weinblatt, president of the Tenafly, N.J., research firm Pretesting Co.

Weinblatt has coaxed clients like Campbell’s Soup and Mazda to advertise less on TV--and spread their messages to print, billboards and direct mail. He suggests a common theme--and common look--in all a company’s ads so the message is never confused.

“The only way to deal with the problem is to create ads that aren’t irritating,” said Anthony C. Wainwright, vice chairman of the Minneapolis agency Campell-Mithun-Esty. “People won’t stand to be irritated anymore.”


But some desperate advertisers are making irritation their middle name. They now presume that their ads will be zapped after a few seconds. That leaves them only one course of action. “They repeat the brand name as many times as they can in the first few seconds,” said Fishman. “They hope people might remember it before they change the channel.”