Jimmy Carr's Starbucks-like ubiquity on television could give the impression Channel 4 executives have entered some sort of Faustian pact with the man. Not only is he on or hosting practically every panel/quiz/top ten show on the channel, the flat-faced comic has even strolled blithely out of scheduled programming and through an entire ad break, slating all the ads on the way.
But, putting the pervasiveness of Carr aside, having him walk into a Gocompare.com ad and silencing that annoying tenor by squeezing his, erm, vibratos (as part of Channel 4's Comedy Gala earlier this year) did make the ad break much more fun to watch.
It also made the advertisers in that slot look like they had a sense of humour and the confidence to invite the scorn of a comedian who once said of a Vodafone ad campaign: "It states, 'Be part of the world's largest mobile community.' Now correct me if I'm wrong but that's the gypsies."
Changes in the CAP code in September will help drive the push towards rethinking the ad break. The changes will mean that TV personalities, such as Jamie Oliver and Davina McCall, can appear in advertising around the programmes in which they appear. The move may be a daunting one for viewers trying to avoid already overexposed celebrities, but is an exciting one for broadcasters, agencies and advertisers. "It's a new opportunity to use the ad break in different ways," Mike Parker, the head of strategic sales at Channel 4, enthuses.
On the face of it, everyone could win; the brands, the viewers, the broadcasters and, of course, Carr. Parker believes disrupting the norm like this is a must. "The level of awareness of the ads during the Comedy Gala shot up and the feedback on Twitter was very positive," he attests, adding: "In a media-diluted world, you need to give viewers a reason to watch."
The clamour for thinking beyond the linear break has, of course, been growing in tandem with viewers' ability to choose what they watch and when they watch it. Even a confirmed couch potato affects an air of sophistication with an iPad on his knee. Audiences can no longer be taken for granted.
"Rethink the ad break" is a now- familiar refrain at the annual Plannertarium creative television planning conference. Clients need to grow a pair (of balls) and planners need to stop thinking that social media is the only way to create a buzz, attendees at the conference last month were told (in so many words). Tess Alps, the chief executive of Thinkbox, questions the pains advertisers go to court a relatively modest online audience. "Online communities have reframed the size of TV audiences. Why don't advertisers put the same effort into the millions watching TV?" she argues. Fellow TV proponent Parker is of the opinion that putting the extra effort into telly can also take care of other media. "If a brand takes over an entire ad break, that can then take the audience online," he says.
Money shouldn't be a barrier, TV cheerleaders argue, because being inventive around the ad break need not be more expensive than buying a 30-second spot if carefully planned. Regardless, bigger investments pay off in ratings, Alps says: "Buying more airtime can cost more, but the ad break can be promoted beforehand to drive more people to the destination."
Not that tampering with the ad break format is anything new. As far back as the 80s, there have been themed breaks. But in recent times, with commercial TV fighting dropping audiences and revenues, the momentum has naturally gathered pace. Some brands have responded by becoming more inventive and less risk-averse. A case in point is Honda, with its live ad two years ago. Ian Armstrong, the communications strategy director at Honda Europe, welcomes the fact that nervousness around reinventing the ad break has waned. "We need to give viewers another reason to stop and watch," he says. "People gravitate towards interesting content."
Turning the ad break into an event creates all sorts of possibilities. Having the actor Steven Berkoff appear to punch and gag the viewer in order to illustrate what its like to have a heart attack was one of the more unsettling. Yet thanks to plenty of pre-publicity, the 2008 ad - which was more than two minutes long and created by Grey for the British Heart Foundation - attracted six million viewers on ITV.
Earlier this year on Channel 4, Microsoft's search engine Bing ran a "live search" on advertisers during their ads. For example, before a Tesco ad, the Bing search engine was asked: "Where can I get everything I need for the World Cup?" The links to Tesco that appeared when the search ran clicked into a Tesco ad. Russell Ramsey, the executive creative director of Bing's ad agency, JWT, says this sort of approach can be perfect for the right brand. "Bing were facing mission impossible with Google, and so they were trying to do unusual things and shake things up," he explains.
Recently, the Channel 4 strategic sales team (which launched the Plannertarium conference last year) has arguably been setting the pace in terms of creative innovation. Ad breaks linking to programming included a TV campaign for O2's Load & Go cash card, which featured two teenagers working in a shop, was custom-made to complement the storylines in Hollyoaks. Narrative breaks have included a Max Factor campaign, which first aired last month and showed a woman getting her look overhauled in the course of three consecutive breaks in relevant Channel 4 programmes such as How To Look Good Naked, and the Orange "movie zone" break, which runs Tuesday evenings to promote Orange's offer of two-for-one cinema tickets. It consists of movie trailers flanked by Orange idents.
Much in the way of technological innovation has come from Sky. The broadcaster has launched on-demand advertising through its "green button" on Sky Player. Through it, advertisers can urge viewers to press the green button on their remote to watch extended ads, "making of" documentaries, or find out more about products and services. In addition, using the data the broadcaster has on its customers, it has also launched its targeted ad service AdSmart on Sky Player.
Graham Appleby, Sky's head of sales, says every broadcaster should be looking at ways to make ad breaks more compelling, but is sceptical about the longevity of some creative solutions: "I really like what Channel 4 is doing but most of it is stunt-based. We're more interested in something more sustainable than stunt-based."
Stunts or not, with viewers harder to capture, commercial TV has an opportunity to do something.
JIMMY CARR FOR CHANNEL 4 - COMEDY GALA
The comedian Jimmy Carr interacted with TV ads from Guinness, Gocompare.com, Churchill, Kerry LowLow cheese and Specsavers for a special ad break during Channel 4's Comedy Gala in April. The Comedy Gala stars comedians including Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre and Alan Carr. Open Mike, the production company behind Comedy Gala, suggested Channel 4 continue the humour into the ad break. Channel 4's strategic sales team then found five advertisers that agreed to let the comedian poke some fun at their brands by appearing in, interacting with or commenting on their ads. Viewers watching the Comedy Gala were ushered into the break by the host Jonathan Ross, who announced that Carr would be engaging with the ads.
BARCLAYCARD - WATERSLIDE GREEN BUTTON
When Barclaycard launched the remixed version of its "waterslide" ad, which was created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the green button service gave viewers the opportunity to watch exclusive behind-the-scenes footage to see how the commercial was made. Last July, Sky created a ten-second prelude highlighting the opportunity to "press green" before key spots featured in Sky1 programming. According to Sky, more than 112,000 customers interacted with the campaign via the green button.
02/HOLLYOAKS - LOAD & GO
O2 created a series of contextual TV ads to promote the launch of Load & Go, the cash card for young people from O2 Money in partnership with Channel 4 and Lime Pictures. A series of 20 individual ads tailored to complement the ongoing storylines from Hollyoaks were created and developed by the creative agency The Outfit and ZenithOptimedia. The ads were broadcast exclusively during Hollyoaks centre breaks (and repeated during the weekend omnibus) and featured two teenagers, Matt and Samantha, who work together in a shop called Load & Go. Matt is a major Hollyoaks fan and the ad charts his burgeoning relationship with Samantha. Over a four-week period their story unfolds, tied in with characters and events that have appeared and taken place in Hollyoaks. Each 30-second spot relates directly to the episode being broadcast and aims to drive viewers to the Hollyoaks website.
MAX FACTOR - MAKEOVER BREAK
The Max Factor Makeover Break takes the form of a "real-life" makeover show, comprising three 90-second spots over consecutive ad breaks. It featured Max Factor cosmetics, Olay skincare and the Aussie and Clairol Nice 'n' Easy haircare ranges. The ads, by 4creative, show a consumer called Lesley, who was chosen via a competition, being made over with Procter & Gamble beauty products. The 30-year-old, an engineering manager who does not usually wear make-up, is given a new glamorous look. The experts include the Max Factor make-up artist Caroline Barnes, hairdresser Sean Tetlow and the Grazia style director Paula Reed. P&G trialled a similar format in the US and found the method increased consumers' intent to purchase to four times that of traditional ad spots.