'Podbuster' Ads, Calculated To Make You Hit Pause

Unilever -- the conglomerate behind products from food (Hellmann's mayonnaise and Lipton Tea) to body wash (Axe and Ponds) -- bought into the 'Mad Men' aesthetic with a series of podbuster ads designed to evoke the look and feel of the AMC drama.

Dressed To Impress: Unilever, a conglomerate behind various products, from food (Hellmann's mayonnaise and Lipton teas) to body wash (Axe and Ponds), bought into the Mad Men aesthetic with podbuster advertisements that evoke the TV drama's look. Unilever hide caption

itoggle caption Unilever

Call it smart advertising — or bad boundaries. You may have noticed a spike in the number of TV commercials designed to look and feel like whatever show you're watching. They're called podbusters, DVR busters or interstitial ads, and they're designed to remove viewers' fingers from the fast-forward button during blocks — or "pods" — of ads.

The advent of TiVo and similar devices can be thanked for the rise of the podbusters. About 40 percent of households have DVRs — meaning 40 percent of households can easily zip past commercials. Think of podbusters as speed bumps for ads.

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'Desperate' Measures? Sprint jumped into the podbusting game with a series of teeny-tiny soap operas under the banner "Another Desperate Housewife." (Guess when, and on what network, they showed up?)

Media consultant Dan Portnoy got caught while watching one of his favorite shows — the AMC drama Mad Men. That evening, he was speeding through the commercials as usual when he saw guys in '60s fashions in a familiar-looking office, and he thought the program had started again. So he stopped fast-forwarding. What he saw looked like Mad Men. It sounded like Mad Men. But it was an ad for shampoo.

"I felt snookered," Portnoy complains. But he admits that as a strategy, the podbuster was diabolically effective. "By the time you realize it's an advertisement, you're pretty much all the way through the commercial."

He'd been caught by one kind of podbuster: a commercial that looks like the show. Bravo's Top Chef employs a different variety: brief, vacuous outtakes from the real show, slotted in between commercials to make you think the program has started up again. For example, in one recent week, Top Chef dropped in about 45 seconds of the contestants clowning around in the "stew room," where they wait to hear who has been kicked off.

And that's reminiscent of another technique: placing podbusters late in the show, when viewers really want to see who won or how the storyline plays out. You don't want to miss a second of the show, so you stop at the first hint of it.

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Earth Calling: Networks have been known to create podbusters of their own, like this one for Torchwood: Children of Earth, which promoted the BBC America series on ... BBC America.

There are other kinds of podbusters, too. Both Glee and 30 Rock are punctuated by commercials featuring actors from the shows. When you see Tina Fey in an American Express ad as it whizzes by on fast-forward, it's easy to mistake it for 30 Rock — and so you stop to watch.

Mike Rosen, an executive with the media agency Starcom USA, says effective podbusters don't just make you stop to watch a commercial you might have skipped. They drive you online to interact with the shows you're watching and the companies that are sponsoring them.

"We have data that shows, second by second, what viewers are doing in these commercial breaks, so we have a better sense of what works and what doesn't work," he says.

Ads that reflect the shows you like, Rosen notes, tempt you to transfer positive feelings about those shows to the products being advertised on them.

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