Letterboxed Messages Help Elude Commercial Zappers

Obsessed was a movie starring Beyonce that opened last month just before the big summer blockbuster season. The TV trailer for Obsessed caught my eye not because it looked like a good movie, but rather because of its layout. The picture was letterboxed, but instead of empty black bars along the top and bottom, there was a static message in big white letters on top that had the film’s URL, AreYouObsessed.com, that persisted throughout the entire ad.

My first reaction was that it made the movie seem cheap, like it wasn’t memorable enough on its own so the marketing team had to slap a plug for its web site along the top. But as I fast-forwarded through it on my DVR, it dawned on me — with no sound and the action sped up, I could still read the web address. It may be a blunt way to get your message across, but it could have helped Obsessed open at No. 1 that weekend, pulling in $28.6 million.

Of course, there were other factors that contributed to the success of that movie (it starred Beyonce), and it wasn’t the first time that tactic was used. Teen-angsty vampire flick Twilight also featured the release date in the letterbox last year (and was a huge hit), and observers online report seeing it used for older films like Pineapple Express and Sex Drive.

This attention-grabbing tactic is just the latest salvo in the battle between commercials and DVRs. We are watching as the unstoppable force of DVR adoption meets the immovable object of TV advertising. According to Nielsen, 30.6 percent of the households in its people meter have a DVR, up from just 12.3 percent in January of 2007, and MAGNA predicts there will be 52 million U.S. homes with the gadgets by 2014. Research from DVR pioneer TiVo found that over 90 percent of DVR users “almost always” or “always” fast-forward through commercials.

During a speech at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas in January, TiVo CEO Tom Rogers warned that the TV business wasn’t moving fast enough to adapt to ad-skipping.

Commercials and DVRs have been at odds since digital video recording was first rolled out, and advertisers have been looking for ways to overcome its increasing popularity. This past season, FOX tried its “Remote-Free” TV experiment for shows like “Fringe”, and ran fewer commercials (in a similar fashion to Hulu) while charging higher rates for them in an attempt to keep viewers from fast-forwarding through the spots. Unfortunately, the premium the network could charge for fewer ads didn’t match what FOX would have made selling more ads at lower prices, and it canceled the project last week.

A more extreme example came about last year when TBS made a snarky attempt at getting viewers to watch promo spots by having someone walk on-screen during a show and “pause” it while he gave his pitch. This was irritating to many viewers, to say the least.

Faced with that, filling the otherwise empty space above a movie trailer seems like a fair trade — unless every advertiser becomes obsessed with slapping static messages above their ads.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.