Video Invaders

“Oh, no! Not another video!

The status of moving pictures has fallen so far that viewers have started to see them as obstacles and intrusions.

This decline in the perceived value of a movie is a startling development if you look at it in the context of the last 100 years. There was a time when the silver screen was thought to be the ultimate in entertainment. Just five years ago, the goal of almost all advertisers was to get more movies in front of more viewers as a way to get more attention.

But the idea of the movie as an obstacle is inescapable as soon as you visit a web site like Weather Underground. The pages are programmed to postpone loading the weather you went there to see until all advertisements are loaded. The advertisements do not always contain movies, but when they do, you might wait a minute or two before you can see the current temperature and the forecast. It’s impossible to miss the contrast to the one or two seconds the page takes to load when the advertising is static images and links without any movies. Wait for several thousand advertising movies, and it’s excusable if you start to see any unexpected movie as the equivalent of spam.

The situation is worse if you are viewing a web site over a mobile connection. Then your data connection is slower, so you wait longer. While you wait, you are the one paying for all this advertising data that is being sent to your phone.

It is no wonder half of Internet users have started to use ad blockers. Though their nominal purpose is to hide advertising, most of what they do is hide unwanted movies.

It would not be such a big deal if movies were strictly an Internet problem, but of course, you cannot avoid the movie invasion just by limiting your Internet time. You may see movies playing in stores, above the fuel pumps of a gas station, at the bank, on roadside billboards, around your workplace, even on the screen saver of a work computer. Most of these movies are advertising or are otherwise intended to change your point of view on a particular subject. A few of them are accompanied by loud and potentially embarrassing soundtracks. It is the rare exception when a movie you see has useful information or real entertainment value.

Tuning out the barrage of movies is a skill not everyone shares, but the sense of intrusion is nearly instinctive. You don’t have to think deeply to start to avoid places where you are likely to see movies. The major web stores can track this better than anyone, and that’s why they will rarely show you a movie without at least a Play button to get your permission. Many other web stores have not caught on and continue to show advertising movies to shoppers who are just trying to buy something. Their traffic is declining and they don’t know why.

Internet advertisers and content publishers too need to recognize and adapt, but this will not come easily. Advertising designers who have spent their careers trying to make advertising as noisy and disruptive as the medium allows will not be the ones to notice that consumers are actively avoiding their brands.

In the meantime, media is close to a breaking point. Television viewership is declining for the first time in its history. The recent summer movie season was the most dismal in recent memory in the cinemas, with only one release that the public is likely to remember. Even ebook sales are down for the first time, perhaps in part the result of an Apple-led experiment in adding video content to them. The Internet is “broken,” pundits say, having devolved into a war between ever more intrusive advertising scripts and ever more evasive content consumers.

The underlying issue, I believe, is consumer time pressure. More advertisers than ever are asking for chunks of consumers’ time, and even assuming we all wanted to accommodate the commercial interests that surround us, consumers simply don’t have that much time to spare. Movies have become the point of irritation simply because they demand so much more time than any other medium we see every day. Whatever solution the media sector has to offer has to be one that respects the time of media consumers. A technological solution that allows more movies while making them less costly and intrusive to consumers is unlikely. There will have to be a way for all of us to see fewer movies on days when we are trying to get things done.

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