Cable MSOs don’t have a good reputation on Madison Avenue. Ad agency executives have come to expect only ineffective, poorly made commercials from them. MSOs mainly have concentrated on producing low-budget tutorial-type commercials that describe their new services—and that just doesn’t cut it with Madison Avenue. MSOs’ commercials look even more low rent when compared with the glitzy spots produced by their programming partners. Cable operators are hoping to change that image, and with some of their newest VOD spots, they are beginning to win over some ad agency executives. "[They] are definitely better than we were seeing at the beginning of these product launches," says Karin Henderson, principal and executive creative director, MK Advertising. "Personal relevance is coming across a lot more now than they were back in the days when functionality was all we were selling." A recent batch of VOD commercials from the top five MSOs shows that they are doing a better job pitching their wares. CableWORLD and CTAM screened VOD ads from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cox for three ad agency executives. They read a script from Adelphia’s submission, which was not ready to be screened at the time the panel convened. "These are more strategic, with better budgets and better executed," says Mark Tomizawa, president and CEO, SMASH Advertising. Still, the ad agency executives say there’s a lot of room for improvement and warn MSOs to "kick it up a notch" in short order, Tomizawa says. "In a few months it’s about to get a lot more competitive. If nothing else were going to change, this would be a terrific, healthy improvement." Even with all the plaudits the ad agency executives heaped on the MSOs’ VOD spots, the panel complained that the ads’ content was too focused on competitive issues that don’t concern the average consumer. "They weren’t dealing with the application to people’s lives," says John Zamoiski, COO of NMA Entertainment & Marketing. "What’s important here is what is going to make this different. It’s not about having more. Everybody’s offering more." To combat that, the panel unanimously agreed that commercials should follow more "experiential" story lines to which viewers could relate. That includes focusing on VOD content, rather than on technical features. "You can talk all you want about fast-forwarding and rewinding and convenience," Henderson says. "But if you’re not telling somebody what kind of programming they are missing out on, the control becomes less relevant." The commercials failed when they sold the technology of VOD, the panel agreed. "It’s not about the technology, it’s about application to your life," Zamoiski says. Cable would be well-served to adopt Apple’s iPod strategy for its VOD marketing efforts, the panelists say. "It’s a zero-tech sell," says Zamoiski. "Apple does not say that you can take the iPod anywhere or that it has a spiffy wheel that allows you to control it with just one finger. What they don’t say, but what they show you is, `Hey, this is freedom, baby!’" Time Warner Cable The Spot: Time Warner Cable entered its "Time Is on My Side" on-demand spot. In it, a father puts his child to bed and sits down to watch TV with his wife, only to have the child wake up and disturb their relaxing evening. So the mother pauses the TV show while the father deals with the kid. The Verdict: The unanimous choice as the best spot. The Positives: The story connected to the panel on several emotional levels. "It had application to my life, and I could see myself in that situation," says Zamoiski. It also appeals to women, keeping the mother in the spot relaxed while the father deals with the daughter. "Knowing that women are major cable purchasing decision makers, that was a savvy move," says Henderson. The Negatives: Too much cable-speak, like "What you want, when you want it." "You have to be careful—especially if you have a really human spot, and you put too many of those corporate, institutional messages [in] commercials, direct mail and other things," says Tomizawa. Charter The Spot: Dubbed by the panel "Run, Lola, Run," in the spot a woman rushes to return a movie to a video store before late fees are assessed. Just as the woman appears to run into a door while approaching the video store, she plops onto her couch and begins to enjoy Charter On Demand. The Verdict: Judged the second best of the five spots viewed. The panel liked the first half of the spot; they were confused by the second half. The Positives: Charter produced a commercial to which people can relate. "All I know is that they engaged me at the very beginning of that spot perfectly," Zamoiski says. "How many times have you run to the video store to get a movie back in time?" The Negatives: The panel became confused midway through the spot, when the woman gets hit with the video store door and winds up at her house with the remote. "They put us in a position where we had to guess what was going on," Zamoiski says. "At that point, I’ve already disengaged. I’m on to something else." Cox The Spot: A takeoff on 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a single man converses with his television in his apartment. The television explains the benefits of on-demand programming. The Verdict: Reviews were mixed. Some found the spot funny; others deemed it creepy. The Positives: The spot works best if targeted to a specific demo, like Sci Fi or Discovery. "It’s potentially polarizing," Tomizawa says. "It’s possible to take the 2001 HAL thing as being a little creepy. I mean, this is a computer that kills people." The Negatives: The spot doesn’t do enough to highlight on-demand content that’s available. In fact, Zamoiski says it’s his least favorite. "I kept thinking that this is another company invading my house. It’s not putting me in control. But they’re looking at me." Comcast The Spot: Comcast’s popular NFL On Demand service is pitched with highlights of various NFL games and explanations of the service. The Verdict: The panel expected a better spot for such a popular and well-known service. The Positives: Henderson proposes a four-spot campaign, with one focused on content, one on fast-forward and rewind, one on time and control and one focused on lifestyle benefits. The Negatives: It doesn’t stand out from the pack. "[It looks like] a million other commercials with sports highlights, with a little reference to fast-forward and rewind and all of that," Tomizawa says. Another complaint: The message is too confusing. Henderson’s husband, an editor at Sports Illustrated, doesn’t know what’s being sold. "He doesn’t see why he needs more than the ESPN same-day highlights," she says. Adelphia The Spot: The BBC’s James Burke is in a futuristic library, discussing the benefits of VOD. The Verdict: Unrated. The panelists did not see the video; they read the script and looked at a still image. The Positives: The idea of the library metaphor—calling Adelphia On Demand a big library—works for Henderson. "I thought it was a decent metaphor," she says. The panelists assumed the commercial is part of a campaign spotlighting Adelphia’s technological innovations. The Negatives: The panelists were scared away by the first line in the script, which harps on technology. "Honestly, [they] lost me with the first line," Zamoiski says. "I don’t want to hear about technological innovations because, typically, I’m already dissatisfied with the technology my system is giving me based on what I think I should be getting."