Bread & Circus: Ignorance & Brand Participation in TV Advertising

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The ancient bloody violence at the Colosseum had one thing in common with network television: you didn’t pay directly to watch it. Someone else did. The satirical poet Juvenal (A.D. 100) described the free Roman games as “Bread and Circus” — handing out cheap food and cheap entertainment as a way for the emperor to gain popularity with the common people. And yet today, it’s this same model that should replace the lingering plague of 30-second spots.


Network television’s only to-do-list: self-preservation.

Are there no other alternatives? Sure: Netflix, HBO and iTunes are doing just fine. You pay for what you watch. And — more importantly — you only watch what you are willing to pay for. It’s a great solution for everyone involved. But it doesn’t solve the issue television networks are wrestling with: self-preservation. They don’t offer enough breadth or premium content to compete with on-demand or subscription services. For day-to-day live television it would be a steep adoption curve. And taking all their content to Netflix or Apple to be re-sold would reduce their role to just another content provider in someone else’s experience. It would also rob them of their only real advantage: relationships with brands.

“Networks’ only real advantage is their relationship with brands.”

The “Bread and Circus” model might not be as archaic at is seems at first blush. IBM publicly sponsors the Frank O. Gerhy show at the Guggenheim. Prudential makes significant donations to NPR, and lets it be known. Safeco helps fund a stadium, now named after it. Wealthy families get their names carved in stone at libraries and hospitals in return for substantial funding. Then — closer to the industry at hand: “Mr. Televison” himself, Milton Berle and his Texaco Star Theatre — the 1948 variety show and staple of Tuesday night family viewing. “Bread and Circus” started it all when modern civilization became organized enough to support large scale branding. And ever since, every sponsor and benefactor is banking on the experience they helped make fund to reflect favorably upon them and their mighty powers.

It’s just and ad. What did you expect?

Is the “Bread and Circus model” really any different than a 30-second spots? Absolutely. In the sponsorship model – or “This show brought to you by…” – the benefactor is directly associated with the experience . No matter how popular, no one wants to sponsor pornography for that very reason. IBM would not “bring you” re-runs of “Friends”. But the same corporation might casually run a 30 second spot in the very same show.

“Television ads cultured a relationship between sender and receiver built on mutual ignorance.”

Television ads have cultured a relationship between sender and receiver that is built on mutual ignorance. When our favorite show is interrupted yet again by an imbecile ad for cheese-filled pizza-crust, we shrug and ignore it. We don’t expect to be told anything of importance. It’s just an ad, right?

This commercial ignorance fits most brands perfectly. They don’t have anything meaningful to say, so an ignorant audience expecting nothing is perfect. All they are looking for is a forum to clown around in for attention. Quality programming would provide the wrong atmosphere, and make ignorance harder to slip by. And for perfect symmetry: ignorance also fits the networks. They don’t need to produce anything of real substance. It is given away for free anyway. And cheap content is just that, inexpensive and much easier to produce.

Why would anyone want to save network television?

Transitioning from 30-second spots to a benefactor-model for brand participation would fundamentally challenge the ignorance we have come to accept. Brands would simply not pay to partake in weak and pandering content, as it would reflect badly upon them. The whole idea is to put your name on something that makes you look good. And creating commercial messaging that competes for attention with — even interrupts — the actual programming is then no longer desirable. Messaging that tries to replace actual information with desperate “creativity” is unnecessary. The brand is the benefactor, not the headliner.

“Better programming — the only thing worth saving from the lions.”

All this said, the better question might be: why try to save network television at all? And the better answer is: we shouldn’t. But since a profound lack of real purpose, outside making money, is unlikely to hinder any large organization from trying to preserve itself at any cost — and the never ending swan-song of intrusive TV commercials seem unable to enter rigor mortis — we are now tasked with coming up with constructive alternatives. Slow and natural death simply won’t suffice.

Bread and Circus! Despite it’s bloody past, this is the healthy alternative for brand-sponsored television. It will keep networks relevant on their own terms and offer brands a way to participate in the cultural discourse. But better yet, it will start to deliver what we actually want: better programming. Without that, we might as well feed it all to the lions.