If you want to watch X Factor... you'll have to watch The Churned

Audiences may complain that commercial breaks on TV's biggest shows have got longer but they're wrong, says Ian Burrell. It's all down to new, attention-grabbing advertising

In tight vests and green wellies, Britain's new favourite boy band, The Churned, burst out of a country barn, just off the A368, and stole the hearts of the X Factor's audience of around 13 million on Saturday night. The fact that, rather than trying to flog downloads or concert tickets, they were selling yogurt from a challenger brand such as Yeo Valley, made the scale of their impact all the more significant. Within no time, The Churned's debut was the biggest trending topic on Twitter worldwide. Their pastiche of a song ("we won't change, no never, we'll farm this way forever and ever"), combined with naked torsos under waxed jackets, ensured 130,000 views on YouTube – or YeoTube as it was rebranded – as audiences followed the television commercial on to social media sites. The song went straight into the iTunes chart at No 31.

This is the new advertising. It has emerged with the revival of "event" television on a reinvigorated ITV1. The internet may have caused havoc in traditional media, fragmenting audiences in the process, but that only creates greater demand for the attention of the masses who head to the sofa at weekends to watch shows such as The X Factor and Downton Abbey.

For commercial television, which has endured turbulent times during the economic downturn, a blockbuster format offers mouthwatering opportunities. Aside from the traditional advertising "spots", there is the chance to sell sponsorship "bumpers" and squeeze in some trailers for other shows to help lift the rest of the schedule.

It's a risky business. Families that are enjoying a rare communal moment, for which they have been waiting all day, are not going to accept a deluge of poorly-chosen commercial messages. Aviva discovered as much with its sponsorship of Downton Abbey, which was criticised as inappropriate and excessive. The insurance company, through its advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, tried to complement the period drama by creating its own narrative around a crashing motorcyclist.

The jarring difference in tone along with ITV's cramming in of a maximum number of other adverts, trails and promos, prompted a backlash which forced Aviva into an embarrassing re-edit of its campaign. Critics calculated that a quarter of Downton's 90-minute slot in the schedule had been taken up with various forms of advertising.

ITV denies that it has increased the amount of advertising around its blockbuster shows. The broadcaster points out that it is constrained by strict Ofcom rules that permit only 12 minutes of ads per hour of peak-time television. But the situation is more complicated than that; sponsorship bumpers, such as those made by Aviva, are counted as programming minuteage rather than as part of the ad break. Trailers are also outside of the ad limits. "Nothing has changed," insists an ITV source.

"It's a perception thing," says media consultant Paul Thomas. "It could be that some people are unhappy with the amount of trailers or the broadcasters are putting more minuteage [amount of minutes] into some ad breaks than others. But clearly these are high-rating programmes and the audience is very attractive to advertisers."

While modern audiences are comfortable with the trade off of advertising for free content (a model which ITV pioneered), they have also become familiar with fast-forwarding through ads, a luxury which is not available when the family has settled down to watch a keenly-anticipated show live. The resulting ad break is a tough environment, where ads must not only match the adrenalin-rush of a top-rating show, but please an audience that may have be irritated by a deluge of sponsorship messages and trailers.

The huge interest in "event" television stems from the commercial impact of the Super Bowl in America, where advertisers have long realised the value of launching a campaign to the vast audience that congregates for the biggest event in the nation's sporting calendar. The aim is "bespoke creative" advertising that sits directly alongside editorial television content. Guinness produced such a piece of work for the current Rugby World Cup.

Clearly there is a risk in producing an advert designed to run only in one very specific – and especially expensive – point in the schedule rather than as a broader campaign. "But research has shown that if you engage with an audience in this way you get a higher retention," says Thomas. He describes it as sending up a "flare", which will ensure millions see the launch ad, which can subsequently be "dripped" in small quantities in the knowledge that it is likely to be recognised.

Such a strategy represents a risk for a brand such as Yeo Valley, which lacks the marketing muscle of dairy rivals such as Müller. The company gambled much of its annual ad budget on sending up a similar flare during last year's X Factor, with a rapping farmers ad. "They're incredibly bold in putting all their spend in one place," says Ben Fennell, CEO of Yeo Valley's ad agency BBH. "But the old media model that says you have got to see something 15 times before it sinks in is being absolutely blown away by this thinking. If you've got something that is fresh enough and famous enough you can just run it once or twice and it will deliver you massive impact."

He describes this approach as "Super Bowl Super Social", because its success depends on magnifying the impact of the blockbuster commercial by supporting it with activity on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Those that followed The Churned to Facebook were given the lyrics to their song "Forever" and the chance to sing it and be judged. The winner will have their photograph in the Yeo Valley ad that runs during the final of The X Factor.

"A lot of negative stuff that has been said about broadcast communication in the last few years, that the ad break is dead," says Fennell. "That's clearly nonsense – what's dead is boring broadcast advertising. If you put fabulous content into brilliant programming like The X Factor and have a seamlessly worked out social media strategy at the back of it you end up trending globally on Twitter." And money can't buy that sort of attention.

Ads: A TV History

1955 First commercial advertisement in the UK

With ITV's launch came time-slot designated commercial breaks. Gibbs SR Toothpaste was chosen from 23 entries to the lottery to determine who had the first prize spot. The ad aired at 8.12pm during a Jack Jackson-hosted variety show.

1965 TV tobacco ads banned

Television commercials have been subject to statutory regulation since their inception. However, the Television Act of 1964 consolidated the varying strands of legislation. A year later tobacco advertising was banned from all British channels on health grounds.

2008 The first live advert

Much fanfare surrounded Channel 4's airing of the first live advert. In order to promote Honda, a team of skydivers were tasked with spelling out the manufacturer's name as they jumped from an aircraft over Madrid. Broadcast over 3min 20sec during a break from the dining competition Come Dine With Me, it featured the car company's then slogan: "Difficult is worth doing." Despite the added press coverage the event generated, it's not a stunt which has caught on.

2010 Faithless pioneer the 'prommercial'

In a move that was seen to signal the future of the music industry, the dance act Faithless took over an entire ad break during the screening of Channel 4's Big Brother to show the music video for their song "Feelin' Good". The stunt was performed in conjunction with Fiat, and the video heavily featured the Fiat Punto Evo.

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