DRTV: Past, Present, and Future

Posted on June 16, 2022 by Christena Garduno

Let’s not dilly-dally. The definition of DRTV is:

Direct Response Television is TV advertising that includes a response trigger, such as an 800 number, a website address, a text message, or a bar code. DRTV exists to generate an immediate response to purchase a product or service.

Related: What is DRTV?

Why has Response Advertising worked so well for so long? Here’s why:

Benefits of Direct Response TV advertising

  • Low cost of development
  • Works on multiple channels (TV, internet, streaming)
  • Competitive ad rates
  • Storytelling format makes your brand relatable
  • Highly accurate viewer data visualization

Characteristics of DRTV Marketing

  • Strong brand and/or product presence
  • The advertiser asks the consumer to contact them directly, typically via phone, text message, or a website.
  • Your marketing campaign can be measured easily via leads and conversions

The history of Direct Response marketing

Someone once said that “everything old becomes new again.” Or put another way, “what goes around comes around.” Or if you’d prefer: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Direct Marketing has been around a long time, and the principles that make it effective have changed little. In the 15th century, European merchants used catalogs to appeal to customers, utilizing sales copy and direct response prompts were used, such as mailing or contacting a merchant at their shop. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) is thought to have introduced DRM to the colonies in America. Ol’ Ben was trying to sell books.

In 1861, a Welsh businessman, a fella who sold flannel clothing, created the first mail order marketing campaign. Reportedly, it was very popular, and soon other merchants in the United Kingdom were using the practice. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Things really changed in the late 19th century, when a man named Aaron Montgomery Ward conjured up a new business model and marketing strategy. Ward purchased goods directly from manufacturers and importers, and stored them in his warehouses. He wanted to sell them, but instead of opening stores, Ward sold his goods exclusively via a new, attractive catalog that he mailed to consumers. When the orders came in, Ward sent the goods from his warehouse, cutting out the need for an intermediary retailer. The Montgomery Ward’s catalog was a tremendous success, making Aaron M. Ward filthy rich. Later, Ward launched his own department stores, but the backbone of his empire was the mail order catalog, which survived more than 100 years, until 2001. One of the keys to the success of his catalogs was the breadth of his offerings, and the easy ordering process, which Ward included on every page of his catalog.

If you want to talk about the history of baseball, you have to discuss Babe Ruth. And if you want to talk about the history and growth of direct marketing, you must mention the name Wunderman. That’s Lester Wunderman, to be precise. Mr. Wunderman was the Sultan of Swat of emotional appeal advertising, and just as The Babe popularized the home run, Lester practically invented direct response marketing.

In the 1960s, Wunderman came up with the idea for the magazine subscription card, and while many consumers grumbled for the next forty years when those cards fell out of their reading material, the cards worked. Wunderman believed strongly that traditional “List features and benefits” advertising was boring and less effective than an emotional connection with the customer. Wunderman invented the loyalty program, and his American Express rewards program made hundreds of millions of dollars for the company. Maybe his most lasting contribution to advertising was the 1-800 number, which soon became the de facto “call to action” for direct response marketing. Wunderman is even credited with coining the phrase “direct response marketing.”

Television was a natural platform for Direct Response Advertising. While Montgomery Ward’s catalogs were highly successful, direct appeals via the airwaves through the TV commercial proved to be the slingshot that propelled DRM to new heights. Soon, many brands were producing DRTV commercials and hawking their wares. Even smaller companies could create a commercial and ask folks to phone their toll  free number to order “while supplies last.”

The era of Direct Response Television

There are two types of Direct Response TV (DRTV): longform and shortform. A longform DRTV ad is more than two minutes in length and has a narrative flow. Think of the “infomercial” that became well-known in the 1980s.

Shortform DRTV ads are two minutes in length or less and are typically scheduled as “commercial breaks” within other programming. These ads contain less background on the brand and focus more on the advantages of the product or service.

In both long and shortform DRTV advertising, the messenger can be vitally important. Often a trusted voice is used, such as the founder of the company, inventor of the product, or a highly-trusted and respected celebrity. “Mirror-Imaging” is frequently used: the messenger or “pitch man” looks like the consumer that’s being targeted.

When the Internet emerged as a valued channel for commerce, DRTV ads started to use it in their messaging. In 2000, the first Super Bowl ad using an internet call-to-action aired, in which the brand asked viewers to visit their website for more information and to get special offers. The ad, by internet startup Netpliance, used mystery and intrigue to coax viewers into visiting their website. It was so successful that the company had to upgrade their web servers in the days and weeks after the ad first ran.

The future: smartphones, apps, and interaction with brands in real-time

Today, advertising is a one-way street. The advertiser speaks to us, shows us their products, and has to ask us to take action. But soon—in fact very soon—consumers will be able to directly interact with the advertising they see on their TVs, online, and on the phones they carry in their pockets.

With apps rolling out at a record rate (rollouts increased 27 percent in 2019), consumers are becoming more comfortable using apps to manage their purchases and purchasing decisions. Whereas now a brand must list a toll free number and/or a website at the bottom of a TV ad, imagine them showing a code or brand logo on the screen and inviting you to capture it with your app. Once the consumer has done that, the product and a special offering can be delivered immediately to them. Because the app can store your purchasing and shipping information, you could buy the product you just saw on your television with a simple scan of the logo and one click. Poof! 1-800 numbers could become yesterday’s news.

The same real-time response technology can be used on your tablet, laptop, or any other device connected to the Internet. See an ad at the pump at the gas station, swipe your mobile phone, and have the product shipped to your house overnight. Because most mobile devices contain GPS and mapping by default, providing geo-centric advertising is a snap. The local restaurant can offer coupons and one-click deals via a customized DRTV ad that plays on the screens in the neighborhood gym with a one-time offer.

At Media Culture, we’re employing new technologies to keep our clients at the forefront of advertising. We use proprietary data techniques and back-end programs, to secure DRTV results and online sales. Because we’re aware of where Direct Marketing came from, where it is now, and where it can go in the future, we’re confident Media Culture can devise marketing strategies to build brand awareness for our clients that they’ll find affordable and effective. 

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