A Mad Men nightmare: The "second screen"

What would Don Draper do with a generation that checks its phone every time an ad comes on?

Published May 31, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

"Viggle Boy" has been watching a lot of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" lately. Ever since the beginning of May, when DeGeneres announced her program would be giving away $100,000 to viewers who "checked in" via the "second screen app" Viggle, his DVR has been recording the show while he is still at work. When Viggle Boy gets home, he turns on the TV, fires up the app and lets it listen to the show so his attendance can be registered.

Viggle is a "loyalty app." It awards points for watching TV shows and commercials, as well as participating in various special promotions. The points can be redeemed for prizes: gift cards at retailers, an Amazon Kindle Fire, cash. Viggle Boy, a software developer in Tampa, Fla., whose real name is Amit Kabra, runs a website that advises users on how they can "earn max points" every day. He follows his own tips and tricks religiously.

These days, that means catching some Ellen when he gets home from work, and then turning off the TV until the prime-time "bonus shows" begin. "Vigglers" can best maximize their daily point totals by watching promoted shows in the evening, tuning into specific commercials, and participating in trivia contest and "quests"; the NBA Finals "quest," for example, requires viewers to check into at least five live NBA playoff games during a specific period.

Kabra says he's redeemed his points for gift cards from Amazon and Best Buy, and even won a Viggle T-shirt. He also says he's watched a lot of TV that he otherwise wouldn't have.

"It used to feel weird when I started watching new shows," said Kabra. "But as I found a lot of good shows, it doesn't feel weird anymore. I found myself watching these shows even when they stopped being a part of Viggle bonus shows."

Multiply Kabra by a million, or 10 million, or a hundred, and one might start to be able to make an argument that advertisers are solving the challenge of an age in which avoiding commercials has never been easier. Because Viggle's goal isn't really to get more people watching "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." It's to get more people watching the commercials that run during "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." That's what the practice of rewarding loyal media consumption with the opportunity to win prizes has always been about. Viggle is applying a time-tested tactic to a new media reality -- the emergence of the "second screen" world in which everybody watches TV while simultaneously messing around with their smartphone or tablet.

Whoever figures out how to pull this off stands to cash in. Viggle is just one prospector in the second screen gold rush. In late May, Twitter announced a new Amplify initiative, which will coordinate ads promoted in your Twitter feed with the ads broadcast during the shows you are watching. The music recognition app Shazam is planning to hinge an entire public offering on its belief that it can successfully monetize the smartphone/TV screen interaction.

Where eyeballs go, advertisers will follow, so it's hardly news that marketers are trying to exploit the second screen. But in doing so, they're running smack into some formidable obstacles. If we're watching a DVR'ed show, we just fast-forward through the ads. If we're watching something as a live broadcast, we turn to our phones as soon as the commercial comes on. Perhaps we're checking Twitter to see what other viewers are thinking about the new episode of "Modern Family" or the Miami Heat or the crazy shit that just happened on "Justified." We might just be checking our email or reviewing Facebook status updates. Whatever we're doing, it's the exact opposite of old-school supine acquiescence to whatever marketers choose to throw at us. We have an abundance of options, and we are taking them.

Shazam, Twitter and Viggle are all trying to co-opt behavior that is premised on actual human connection and pervert it for corporate propaganda purposes. It's hard to see how this is going to work, practically speaking. Viggle's strategy most explicitly betrays the fundamental illogic. If you have to pay us to watch the ads, your business model is broken. You're better off making the ads so good that we choose on our own to go find them.

* * *

It's safe to say that no one really saw the second screen coming, at least as it applies to the phenomenon in which a nation of couch potatoes suddenly became a chatty mob. What's now being called "social TV" -- a culture sharing notes on "Downton Abbey" and "Glee" on Twitter or engaging in a collective social media Seth MacFarland hate-fest when Oscar time rolls around -- is one of those surprises that seems absolutely predictable only in retrospect.

Who knew? The same digital technologies criticized for turning us into a nation of solipsistic hermits turned out to actually be technologies that encouraged engagement with other humans, and enabled the construction of new conversations about shared experiences. Turns out, we're still social animals, even when alone in front of the TV.

But someone still has to pay the bills for the content we're gossiping about. If we are going to look away from the TV to our phones, advertisers are determined to travel with us. Shazam and Viggle both believe their way in is through exploiting one of the most seemingly magical properties of our new gadgets -- the ability of our devices to recognize what we are listening to or watching by capturing a unique digital fingerprint. Shazam claims its music recognition software has helped it attract 60 million monthly users. The company's stated goal is to get its users to start Shazam-ing TV shows and commercials just as they do songs, promising viewers seamless access to background information about the show itself, or ways to further "engage" with our favorite brands. Want to know where you've seen that actor before or what other shows the director has been involved with? Just Shazam it.

Viggle's pitch is breathtakingly straightforward: "Make TV more rewarding!" All you have to do is turn on your phone and you can accumulate valuable points for doing something you would already be doing anyway.

Of course, if you Shazam a TV show, then the sponsors of that TV show have a chance to show you the same ads on your phone that you are avoiding on the TV. Likewise, if you want to max out your points on Viggle, you won't be able to afford to ignore the premium available for watching commercials. Sneaky, sneaky!

But can this work on a mass scale? Or is there something paradoxically tail-chasing about the attempt to exploit the same technologies that people are employing to avoid ads to show them more ads. What's in it for us? Earlier this week, I was watching TV and spotted the Shazam logo on a commercial for the U.S. Navy. Curious, I whipped out my phone, clicked the Shazam app and was immediately granted the opportunity to watch a handful of Navy promotional videos. Sure, the technology on display was impressive. Shazam recognized the commercial, even though I only managed to start up in time to catch the last second or two of the ad. But I felt no desire to engage further with the Navy brand. That's not what I'm looking for when I turn to my phone during a moment of boredom or distraction. I'm looking for connection, to see whether my friends are as excited about that awesome dunk LeBron just laid down, or if people are giving the thumbs down to the "Nashville" finale.

Twitter's Amplify plan is ingenious, if not outright diabolical. If you tweet about a show, Twitter will insert promoted tweets into your feed by the same advertisers who are sponsoring that show. You might be watching "The Americans," check Twitter during a Visa commercial to express your amazement at the latest plot twist, and you suddenly start seeing tweets from Visa. Resistance is futile. The second screen has been colonized and there is no escape!

Twitter's plan has some empirical basis to it, according to B. Bonin Bough, vice-president of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelez, the corporate owner of Oreo. Bough is fond of declaring that "television ads are proven to be twice as effective when product makers participate in conversations on Twitter at the same time they run television ads." Bonin's team at Mondelez executed spectacularly on this premise during the Super Bowl, when Oreo made a legendary splash by rushing up a custom-designed Oreo ad on Twitter to capitalize on a nation of bored football watchers checking their phones during the great New Orleans blackout.

But the key to Oreo's ad success was more than just deft timing. The "You can still dunk in the dark" tweet was clever: an alert mashup of an old Oreo marketing meme -- the dunkability of Oreos -- with the blackout. We like clever, even if it comes packaged as a commercial. What advertisers have to understand, however, is that there is no longer a viable substitute for clever, no matter how well you coordinate your message across various media. There are very good reasons why we are fast-forwarding through ads or checking our phones during commercials. We are, bottom line, fundamentally uninterested in yet another Budweiser or Ford or Visa pitch. Evolution has designed us to be social, even when we are alone, but it hasn't (at least not yet) shaped us into a species that needs or craves advertising. The old economics of broadcast media worked because we were passive consumers of the content. But as soon as the remote control came around, the cracks in that business model started to appear. Viggle and Shazam and Twitter are trying to paper over those cracks. But it's too late. We have too many options. That Visa tweet is just going to be a tiny distraction on the way to something that legitimately interests us.

Unless that Visa tweet is really funny, or otherwise innately compelling. When you survey the current advertising landscape and think about how mobile, connected devices are indulging our distracted desires, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the only real winners here are the advertisers who produce content that is as compelling as the content that we are already consuming voluntarily.

* * *

Earlier this month, Viggle offered 200 points to Vigglers who checked in while watching Oreo's "Wonderfilled Anthem."

The full version of this commercial runs a minute and a half. It's practically a full-length animated cartoon set to a ditty praising the wonders of Oreos by Owl City, the artist most famous for the song "Fireflies." The ad has a Saturday morning, "School House Rock" feel to it. There's no other way to describe it: It's freaking adorable.

Wonder if I gave an Oreo
To a vampire in a creepy show
Would he not act so undead?
Would he thirst for milk instead?
I've just got this feeling that it might work out alright

I have watched the Wonderfilled anthem four times now. In fact, each time I go to YouTube to check it out, I find myself a little surprised that I'm not forced to watch another pre-roll commercial before being allowed to watch the Oreo ad. The video is the ultimate in product placement -- it's destination content, all by itself. You actually don't have to pay me to watch it. With this ad, Oreo is approaching "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" territory.

There's one sequence that is particularly captivating. The third verse proposes that consumption of Oreos will encourage a giant squid, a great white shark and three baby seals to cuddle up together in perfect harmony. Then the "camera" pulls back, and we see that the scene with the squid et al. is framed on a Web page being viewed on a laptop. The laptop clamshell is then closed, and morphs into an ... Oreo.

Talk about your multiple creamy-filled layers! There's at least a dissertation's worth of hipster irony to unpack in the "Wonderfilled Anthem." The Oreo is the medium is the message! As you are watching this ad, mediated through whatever device you have chosen to consume your content with, the ad forthrightly acknowledges its essential online digital fabrication. It is an ad designed to capture an audience seeking momentary distraction that is also designed to suggest that the Oreo somehow represents how we live our lives now. It's an ad that includes the second screen inside itself while playing on your second screen.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. But then again, the idea that giving an Oreo to a shark would compel it to make nice with baby seals is equally absurd. As is, for that matter, the premise that any sentient creature would want to "engage" with a brand of cookie. It's all ludicrous to the nth degree.

But in world where Viggle's fans complain on Viggle's Facebook page about not getting the points due them for watching "Hell's Kitchen" or an NHL playoff game, or Shazam's CEO expects to generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue from people holding up their phones to interact with commercials, it's hard to fault Oreo for being clever in the middle of an overabundance of raving lunacy. Our traffic patterns through the Internet cannot lie; we have an unlimited appetite for both the silly and sublime. Combine the two in one delicious package and you might well get people talking ... and snacking.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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