Should television advertisers design to be "above the fold?"
Above the fold. Every designer has heard this concept at some point or another during their career. Sometimes as a constructive catalyst which prompts you to evaluate which content is really key for the end user to see first, oftentimes simply as a buzz word thrown around by executives and managers whether it actually is applicable or not. Regardless, every designer is familiar with the theory of designing your product within the bounds of the "above the fold" mantra.
For those that are unfamiliar, "above the fold" is a term long-used in the design world which originally referred to the act of printing the most important articles, photographs, and advertisements above the part where the newspaper is folded, as an incentive for the reader to open and explore further. Later, the concept became popular with web designers and content creators who aimed to place the most important content (or links to said content) in front of the viewer without making them scroll down the page to find it.
The evolution of this design concept makes complete sense, as most design and advertising principles apply whatever the medium happens to be. But, recently I've been noticing a new "fold" that advertisers have yet to fully take into account: the DVR (Digital Video Recorder) fast-forward interface.
I'm not going to turn this into a column on how many homes now feature a DVR-equipped television. Frankly, it's a lot, and the number is growing by the day. There are numerous studies out there with hard numbers, but the fact is that all of the major television providers offer DVR features to its customers, whether it be Comcast, Time Warner, DirectTV, Dish Network, etc. Now, out of all of the DVR users out there, I've read statistics saying that anywhere from 50% to 86% of users fast-forward through commercial breaks in their program. Whatever that actual number may be, the fact remains that most people like to get through their commercials as fast as possible.
Let's take a moment to introduce this "fold" that I mentioned earlier. Like online video controls, all DVR interfaces have a progress-indicator along the bottom of the screen to display where in your program's timeline you are presently at. This bar is of varying widths and heights depending on which service provider you currently subscribe to, but in my experience, they all sit approximately in the lower-fifth of the screen and obstruct whatever is behind it.
Since I happen to follow my fair share of television programming, with my busy schedule, I enjoy setting the DVR to record the shows that I like so that I may view them later. Lately, I've been noticing that while breezing through commercial after commercial, I don't always know what product or service I'm actually seeing. Since so many users fast-forward through the commercials entirely, I would imagine that advertisers would at least try to get as much bang for their buck. If you can get some branding, product placement, and relevant info onto the screen for the user to see as they fly past, then that can still be effective advertising and help spread brand recognition.
Let's look at this photo I took of my television of a promo for the CBS show Hawaii Five-O. Since most 30-second spots are transformed into 5-8 second spots when sped up once the user begins to fast-forward, I would imagine that CBS would be happy with the user seeing a couple of abbreviated scenes from the program, the name of the program in case those quick scenes looked interesting, and what time the program is on. In this case, both the show's name and time is obstructed by the DVR controls, leaving no impression of any value to the user.
Forgive my quick Photoshop work, but here's a better version of that screenshot. I've made the show's title/logo a bit larger and placed it higher up on the screen above the "fold", meaning the user can actually see and identify which program this promo is for. Moving this up also allowed me to fit the program's time slot in there as well. If I was surfing past this commercial quickly, at least I'd be able to see the Hawaii Five-O logo and know what time it's on if I wanted to tune in ever. Never underestimate the human eyes and brain's ability to scan and process information, even at fast speeds.
My second example is a 30-second spot for fast-food chain Wendy's. In the 7-8 seconds that the commercial is now crammed into, I see a woman talking in what appears to be a fast-food restaurant. The commercial cuts to visuals of tasty burgers and other delicious-looking fare throughout, before ending again with the spokeswoman. Now, if I hadn't seen this commercial before, I'd have no idea what establishment this advertisement was for, or where to try one of these good-looking burgers if I wanted to, since the Wendy's branding is hidden behind the DVR's interface the entire time. Nor would I know that the spokeswoman onscreen was Miss Wendy herself, daughter of Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, since her name was obstructed in the beginning of the ad. Looking at this screenshot of the final frame of the piece, you can see that the Wendy's branding is almost completely hidden.
So, let's take a look at how Wendy's could improve this ad to get these flashes of information more visible for the user to possibly pick up on. I've moved the Wendy's branding up toward the top of the frame in a more prominent location. I've also included a quote that I took from the Wendy's website, that helps to summarize the message of the spot: that Wendy's restaurants sell quality meals. If I was going to condense Wendy's commercials down to 5 or so seconds, I'd at least like to know that the viewer associated my branding with the nice visuals of burgers shown throughout the ad, and the message of quality is the last thing they read before the ad ends.
As you could see in the two previous examples, the DVR fold can prohibit advertisers from relaying some key information and messaging out to viewers if the spot doesn't utilize the available space efficiently. On the other hand, some commercials actually do this well, but whether it is intentional or purely coincidence, I'm not sure.
Below is a photo of the final frame of a Dr. Pepper soft drink advertisement. Dr. Pepper's use of space is very good here, with the large Dr. Pepper can, which also features the branding, and the tall glass of the product right in front of the viewer. The product's tagline is also large and readable. If I catch this frame for a second on my way through the commercials, I'm seeing a nice, refreshing glass of Dr. Pepper with their ad slogan. Maybe the next time I'm selecting a soft drink with my lunch, my brain will remember the Dr. Pepper visual and the "one of a kind" tagline, and persuade me to make that purchase.
I'd like to see advertisers adapt to new technology in each medium, and it seems that when it comes to users fast-forwarding through commercial breaks while watching recorded programs on their DVR, most commercials have room for improvement. Next time you're on the couch watching Mad Men and hit the fast-forward button once the commercials start, keep an eye out for what promos are making the most of those precious few seconds to get their message across.
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