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Advertising Space on Bananas? Why Not?

Michael E. Kassan is president and chief executive of Western International Media, a unit of Interpublic Cos., with billings exceeding $5 billion. Los Angeles-based Western is a media-buying firm that places clients’ ads in magazines and newspapers as well as on television, radio and billboards. Among its clients are Walt Disney Co., Home Depot and American Honda Motors’ Acura division.

Western is among the largest players in a field that is becoming increasingly complicated. Consumers are spending less time watching broadcast TV, so advertisers are looking for other ways to spread their messages. This year, for example, ABC placed stickers hyping the network on 15 million bananas.

Kassan recently talked with Times staff writer Denise Gellene about these changes.

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Question: How is the media business changing?

Answer: Advertisers are looking for a communications strategy, whether that means putting ads on the sides of buildings or putting them on fruit in supermarkets. As long as the consumer accepts the intrusion of advertising, there is no limit as to where it will go.

We are not yet to the point of “Truman,” where my wife is doing a commercial while pouring coffee for me. . . . The point is advertising has to be tempered with not being overly intrusive.

There are new choices, new ways of reaching consumers. Direct-response is becoming more mainstream--not full-length infomercials, but [commercials similar to] the direct-to-consumer ads that we’re seeing in drug advertising.

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Q: What is causing these changes?

A: The decline in television viewing patterns. You can no longer guarantee that you will reach everyone by putting an ad on Thursday night on NBC. Advertisers want to be wherever the consumer is going to be. Placing a product in a movie, putting an ad on a piece of fruit--advertisers are approaching the whole equation differently.

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Q: How effective are these alternatives, such as putting ads for films on bananas?

A: If it gets talked about, if it creates a buzz, it’s effective. Even a negative buzz can be effective. It’s the old adage: If you spell my name right, it’s working.

What advertising wants to do is create top-of-mind awareness of services or products and reinforce that in a manner that is appropriate.

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Q: Are we going to see advertisers shift away from network TV?

A: At the end of the day, network television is still where you can reach the most people. But is it becoming part--as opposed to the only--way to reach people? In terms of the upfronts [advance sales of commercial time] in 1999, who knows?

Everyone expected price increases to be way down in 1998, and they weren’t. But viewership keeps eroding, and at some point, the rubber is going to meet the road. The networks will get less of an increase than they are looking for if they can’t deliver the eyeballs.

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Q: Advertisers complain about clutter. They say the number of commercials on television is increasing because broadcasters are trying to boost revenue. And that is heightening the competition among advertisers for viewers’ attention.

A: I know this wonderful 80-year-old woman and she watches a lot of TV. She says that I must make a lot of money because she sees an awful lot of commercials.

If that is clutter, it is not going to change. That is the way of the world.

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Q: How does the Internet fit into the picture?

A: I love to tell this. I’ve got a 75-year-old mother. She sends me four e-mails a day and if I don’t respond, God knows. Cyber-guilt has replaced Jewish guilt.

People are getting comfortable with the online world, and not only from a communications standpoint. They are getting comfortable with transactional stuff [such as online shopping]. . . .

We’re headed toward a convergent world. If you’re watching “Friends” and want to buy a blue dress like the one Jennifer Aniston is wearing, you’ll push a button and bookmark it. When the show is over, you’ll get all the information you need to buy the dress. You won’t go to the Web to do it. You’ll do it right on the TV screen. . . .

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This is separate from commercial breaks. There will still be commercial breaks in shows.

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Q: This suggests that advertisers will become more involved in programming. It sounds like a return to the early days of television, when advertisers not only sponsored but produced shows.

A: Advertisers are getting more involved in programming. This isn’t something new. We’ve long had the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” We think of it as another way to get your message across. . . .

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And, getting back to the dress, how is it different from putting notes at the end of a show that say, “Vanna White’s dress provided by . . . "? There is no difference.

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Media Spending

New York-based Myers Consulting Group expects national ad spending to grow 9% in 1999, to $64.4 billion, barring an economic downturn. Forecasters expect a boost from millennium-related advertising. Here’s a look at Myers’ estimates for spending growth next year:

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Media 1999 spending, in billions Increase Online media $2.O 100% Network cable 7.3 18 Syndication 2.9 10 Consumer magazines 14.8 8 Spot television 11.4 6 Broadcast television 15.7 6 Outdoor media 2.1 6 Network radio 3.0 4 National newspapers 5.1 3

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Note: Spending figures don’t total $64.4 billion due to rounding.

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