From TV IS GOOD to WE LOVE TV – The controversial story of ABC campaign

Traditionally, every summer the broadcast television networks launched marketing campaigns to spotlight their program offerings for the coming season. The campaigns were often uneventful and run-of-the-mill, with viewers and the media paying little notice. In 1997, however, ABC, unveiled a different kind of campaign created by TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles. The campaign, called ‘‘TV Is Good,’’ was designed to help ABC break out of the traditional confines of network slogans and logos, and it created a stir.

Targeting viewers aged 18 to 49 and leveraging a budget of $12 million in its first season, ‘‘TV Is Good’’ directly addressed the guilt associated with watching television. Commercials featured messages that verged on the cynical, such as ‘‘Don’t worry, you’ve got billions of brain cells,’’ and ‘‘Life Is Short. Watch TV.’’ While many in the media criticized the campaign’s apparently insincere celebration of decadent TV-watching, the resulting debate about the merits of ‘‘TV Is Good’’ built considerable buzz around the ABC brand. A 1998–99 modification of the campaign, budgeted at $15 million and tagged ‘‘We Love TV,’’ further contributed to ABC’s emerging personality.

This tactic did not please everyone. For example, Joseph Turow, professor of media at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said of the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ campaign, ‘‘I don’t think they care if it turns off people who are over the hill. Advertisers and networks are really getting manic about attracting people under 30.’’ Alan Cohen, ABC’s executive vice president for marketing, said that the network was not intentionally spurning people over 49. Cohen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, when ABC tested its campaign promos on viewers aged 18–54, ‘‘The campaign played universally the same . . . The audience is right with us on this.’’

The Strategy
ABC’s third-place position in the ratings convinced its executives that the time was right to try something completely different. As Cohen told Broadcasting & Cable, ‘‘When you’re not number one, you have to take more chances.’’ ABC’s research had revealed that most television viewers could not distinguish between the existing network advertising slogans and that most people tended to ignore logos or stars repeating catchphrases. Cohen said, ‘‘They were all drowning out each other, and it left networks without a brand identity.’’

The goal of the ABC campaign was clear. Cohen explained to the Salt Lake Tribune, ‘‘We want to establish an attitude and personality for ABC that’s funny, friendly, and irreverent.’’ Through test and focus groups the network had further discovered that people enjoyed television more than they were willing to admit, and as Lee Clow, TBWA\Chiat\Day’s chairman, explained, the agency based its creative approach on this knowledge. ‘‘As you talk to people about their lives these days and how stressed they are, TV is this period of time where they actually get to recuperate a little bit,’’ Clow said. ‘‘Kind of just plop yourself down and let something happen to you so you don’t have to use your brain and work too hard for a few minutes. So we thought, why not kind of honestly celebrate the notion that TV is a good part of our lives, and sitting down in front of it for a while isn’t a bad thing.’’

Launching a marketing campaign that celebrated television was not without risks in 1997. At the time there was outspoken criticism of television, with many people objecting to the sexual situations, strong language, and violence found in the programming. By choosing to praise television at a time when it was popular to criticize the medium, ABC knew that it was taking a chance. The first phase of the campaign, which did not mention specific network programs, appeared on television.

The Campaign
These spots established the visual elements that would define the campaign throughout its run: a yellow background on which appeared the black text of witty slogans offering a variety of takes on the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ theme. The initial wave of spots featured messages such as ‘‘Don’t worry, you’ve got billions of brain cells,’’‘You can talk to your wife anytime,’’ ‘‘The couch is your friend,’’ and ‘‘Life is short. Watch TV.’’ Print and billboard ads appeared next, and, finally, the network began running spots for individual shows that incorporated the campaign style.  The budget for ‘‘TV Is Good’’ was approximately $12 million in 1997–98.

The TV spots got the attention of the press even before they were first broadcast. The message was quickly picked up by newspaper writers, and ABC was thrust into the media spotlight. Under the headline ‘‘Ads that Rot Your Brain,’’ Jonathan Foreman of the Wall Street Journal wrote, ‘‘The new TV season gets under way this week, amidst one of the worst ad campaigns of all time. In an apparent effort to win over the young viewers of ‘Generation X,’ ABC settled on irony as an advertising gimmick.’’ Monica Collins of the Boston Herald said, ‘‘At ABC, they’re underestimating us like mad while the network runs the snootiest ad campaign ever.’’ Some ABC affiliates had misgivings about the advertisements, too. Complaints from several affiliates convinced the network to drop one spot that said, ‘‘Books are overrated.’’ In addition, organizations critical of television, including the nonprofit TV-Free America, blasted the commercials. As the spots began to air and the media debate about the campaign’s merits gathered steam, Cohen told Bill Carter of the New York Times, ‘‘The reality is the spots have already worked. People are talking about ABC.’’ Jamie Tarses, then the entertainment president for ABC, told Broadcasting & Cable, ‘‘Anybody would give their left arm for this kind of attention. This is what you want if you’re selling television shows or cars or whatever . . . It’s about making noise.’’

From TV IS GOOD to WE LOVE TV
For the 1998–99 TV season, TBWA\Chiat\Day offered what it called an ‘‘evolved’’ version of the campaign, which, according to the New York Times, ‘‘is adspeak for ‘You don’t like it? All right, already! We’ll change it.’’’ The ironic humor was toned down, and ‘‘TV Is Good’’ was changed to the slightly more sincere ‘‘We Love TV.’’

The messages continued to be delivered in the same visual style (black text on a bright yellow background), and many seemed in keeping with the brashness of the previous seasons. For instance, one spot advised viewers, ‘Don’t just sit there. Okay, just sit there’’ another offered the dubious historical interpretation ‘‘Before TV, two world wars. After TV, zero.’’ But the campaign also began to offer less polarizing messages, such as‘TV, so good they named a frozen meal after it,’’ and ‘Without a TV, how would you know where to put the sofa?’’ .

The 1998–99 season likewise marked an increase in series-specific commercials using the overall campaign’s visual elements, humorous tone, and tagline. The campaign budget for that season was estimated at $15 million.

ABC saw its ‘‘TV Is Good’’ campaign as successful for a number of reasons. First, the campaign received an impressive amount of press coverage. Second, another of the big three networks added to the publicity windfall by mocking the campaign with a television spot of its own. Third, public response to the campaign was mostly favorable. Cohen said to Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, ‘‘We did talk to a lot of viewers around the country and show them this material, and I think people sort of got it. They said, ‘Wow, this is funny. ABC is funny. They must have good comedies.’ And that’s exactly the connection we wanted them to make.’’

In the 1999–2000 season ABC and TBWA\Chiat\Day further redefined the brand-building project. Although the network’s promotional spots continued to employ the visual elements and a measure of the ironic humor from the previous two seasons’ campaigns, the new tagline, ‘‘America’s Broadcasting Company,’’ seemed to mark a departure in tone and strategy. The network and its agency maintained that the campaign was not a reversal of the previous years’ tactics but rather a further evolution. This view was supported by a recurring message in the ‘‘America’s Broadcasting Company’’ spots: ‘‘United we watch.’’

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