Cheap Ads Come to Primetime

If you've noticed a lot of TV ads offering tight abs, perfect pancakes and miraculous socket wrenches, you're not alone: Television has been invaded by cheesy ads.

The culprit, of course, is the flat economy. Because ad rates have fallen dramatically on network television over the last two years, the hoi polloi of commercials the 4 a.m. pitches for weed whackers and commemorative coins are now brushing shoulders with the likes of Coca-Cola and American Express.

"No one's getting the kind of money they have been getting in past years because of the soft economy," Jack Feuer, media editor of Adweek, said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

That means there's more ad space on the networks. And networks have to fill those valuable minutes, so they're more willing to auction off the time for a lot less.

The average 30-second spot on a popular sitcom rerun averages $100,000, the Wall Street Journal reported. But with some last minute haggling, that same spot could end up going for as little as $40,000.

According to Competitive Media Reporting, which keeps track of media marketing and advertising spending, the money direct-response companies have put into mainstream networks has risen by leaps and bounds. In 1999, the amount they put into the major three networks ABC, NBC and CBS was $65,704,100. Only a year later, in 2000, they more than doubled that amount, shelling out a whopping $138,064,000 for network ad time.

The people who have benefited the most from commercial clearance sales are relatively low-budget companies, like the direct-marketing houses that accouter your kitchen counters with inexpensive, pay-by-the-month rotisserie grills and clutter your closets with gadgets that staple rhinestones to various kinds of denim.

Because the companies keep their advertising budgets low, viewers get a lot of the same, cheaply made commercials over and over again. So it's hard to avoid the vaguely newscaster-like man who insists on walking all the way home from the office to get his coffee, or the badly lit couple who find their lives reinvigorated by The ZonePerfect Fresh Food Delivery Service.

And there's another simple reason you see those commercials over and over again: Saturating the airwaves with them works, according to Michael Antino, president of Merchant Media. His Natick, Mass., company sells both the Perfect Pancake and the Universal Grip, a one-tool-fits-all fastening device.

"Within seconds, by the phone calls, we can gauge how well the advertisement is doing," he said.

The point of Antino's Perfect Pancake commercial is very clear. It features a would-be chef who doesn't seem to know the concept of cooking oil. She switches to the spatula-free flapjack maker and voila! turns out perfectly golden, fluffy griddlecakes. There's even a pancake-goop extruder and a mold that can shape pancakes into hearts.

And the commercials do indeed turn out big sales, Feuer said.

"The direct-response commercials are probably the hottest thing in advertising right now because they offer immediate results," he said.

But if advertisers like Antino are having a field day with the networks, they're also finding life harder on their home turf: cable television. The competition there has been bruising, and ad rates today have actually gotten as much as 30 percent more expensive than at this same time last year, Antino said.

Of course, cable's still relatively cheap Antino said he's paid as little as $150 for a two-minute spot on a channel like the BBC, which reaches some 6 million homes. And that's why, whether you're in Anchorage or Miami, you're not likely to escape the Perfect Pancake.

"Nationwide, we're probably on 60 or 70 cable networks you name it, from top to bottom, we're there," Antino said. "We're on for the syndication of certain shows, broadcast networks and major cable networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox. We're everywhere."