Friday, August 22, 2008

Dial "N" for Annoying: When Advertising Goes Too Far

Which webisodes go over the top with advertising? A comparison of N., Foreign Body, The Line, and Gemini Division

I've been watching Stephen King's webi-mobi-sodes "N." over at The story is compelling--it follows the psychiatric sessions of an obsessive-compulsive who feels like the world will end if he doesn't adhere to ordering and touching the world in specific numbers and the doctor who comes to believe these delusions are real. Daredevil artist Alex Maleev was a great choice for this motion comic (it's only minimally animated, more like an audio book with pictures); his photorealistic style makes it feel a little more like you're watching a movie or a TV show.

However, I'm annoyed at the ratio of content to credits and commercials. "N." is adapted from a short story from King's upcoming book Just After Sunset, published in November. Episodes last between one and a half to two minutes and that includes a 20-second intro where Scribner, Simon and Schuster, CBS Mobile, CBS interactive, and Marvel comics are introduced and a 14-second end credit for the artists and plug for the website and book. This was particularly annoying when I watched six episodes back to back; now that I'm watching one episode a day, it's not as noticeable, but it's still a nuisanceI'm not the only one who thinks so--here are some comments from the website:
dude! just put them all together into one and show that! enuf with 2 mins a day. stop bein cheap!

Is there any where to watch all episodes at once? Watching commercial after commercial for 2 minute shows are rediculous. I think these clips are cool but my time is worth more.

It upsets me when a major corporation advertises "Watch an Episode of Stephen King's N" - only to show a slim one minute thirty-three second CLIP. JOP!

I wanta see the whole thing..not these short 2 minute series. COME ON!!


In addition, given that this series is already promotion for a book, I'm a little miffed that I must watch a 15-second ad for barely over a minute of content.

In comparison, Foreign Body, a show from Vuguru, is a show with a similar format and length (though with twice as many episodes), and promotes Robin Cook's book of the same name. However, each episode only opens with a brief sponsorship intro by Honda, not a full commercial, and only contains 13 seconds of intro and outtro. Full-length commercials play after the episode and are therefore optional, but the Honda logo is prominently featured in the header of the website. Then again, while the sponsor is totally memorable, that only helps if people are watching the content and apparently the show itself was a relative flop.

The advertising format I'm most on the fence about is the one currently gaining favor for webisodes--product placement. Wired did a story about this becoming the model for a gaggle of new shows, including the comedy webseries The Line (which I reviewed here) and Gemini Division, which I started watching when it started earlier this week. The inclusion of movie posters for several upcoming movies flowed easily into the plot of The Line, since it was about fanboys camping out for the premiere of their favorite sci-fi movie.

In contrast, Cisco and Microsoft logos whack you over the head as soon as you start watching Gemini Division. Yes, it's worked into the plot--agent Anna Diaz uses a fictional Windows Mobile phone to record and transmit to an unseen friend who I guess is watching over a Cisco network. But not since The Wizard, which was literally a feature-length commercial for Nintendo, has product placement been so obvious.

One would think that by securing revenue with product placement, you wouldn't need commercials, but all that money goes to the producers of the video and the networks and portals still need their cut; both The Line and Gemini Division feature pre-roll ads when viewed at Hulu. In general, even though I was an avid TiVo user for almost 10 years before I quit TV, I'm happy to watch a few commercials in exchange for good content. Portals like Hulu do a decent job of balancing advertising and programming--it seems like shorter clips (under three minutes) on their site do not have commercials, while their longer ones do.

However, when the videos of that length are full webisodes, as opposed to excerpts from larger shows, that informal rule does not seem to apply. This would make webisodes an extremely cost-efficient advertising delivery mechanism. While the conventional wisdom says that webisodes and mobisodes have to be shorter for short-attention span that supposedly exist among online viewers, I have to wonder if the density of advertising also has something to do with shorter formats being used for these shows.

No one seems to be abusing this more than the distributors of N. At least shows a commercial only every other episode--if you watch N. over at, which I made the mistake of doing for the first few episodes, you watch a commercial after every episode. Again, given that this whole series is itself advertising for the book, that just seems greedy, or bad site design and business rules.

With original programming streaming on the web, portals and networks are once again in control over the dosage of advertising its viewers get--to an extent. One thing I've noticed is that web series are often syndicated across multiple portals at once and thus viewers have a choice: may have a terrible video interface, but, thanks to a tip from one commenter there, I can also watch this series on CBS's YouTube channel, commercial-free, with only sidebar advertisements. I assume this channel probably gets the most traffic of all three venues for N., so they can make up in volume what they lose in attention by having less obtrusive ads.

(UPDATE: But I've discovered that the best place to watch N. is right here--the player above, although small, has the benefit of no commercials!)

Maybe all these methods work financially for these companies, but to the extent their business relies on happy viewers, here's my take on the user experience:
  • Thumbs up to Vuguru for finding less obtrusive methods of advertising during Foreign Body but better luck developing a show that will will let your sponsor get what they paid for.
  • A relative thumbs up to The Line and Gemini Division for trying out product placement. As long as this is not the news, I'm OK with a little product placement as long as it doesn't absurdly modify the plot.
  • Thumbs down to N. for the promotion-laden distribution. If this was a magazine, it would be the PennySaver--very cheap and all ads. Next time try fewer, longer episodes, and sponsors in the side of the page, or bottom of the video, or decide that what you are really trying to promote is future book sales and ditch the ads altogether--if you try to do both, you'll do neither well.

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