The humorous but aggressive ad series featuring actor Rob Lowe — and ensuing complaints — demonstrate how brutal the battle for pay-TV customers has become with the rise of cord-cutters content to get video content online.
LOS ANGELES — Viewers of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament know by now that handsome actor Rob Lowe has DirecTV and his alter egos — an array of neurotic losers, scary loners and outright degenerates — have cable.
DirecTV has ended the popular and highly effective ad campaign, moving on to a new series of spots last weekend that feature Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover model Hannah Davis and a talking horse. That’s sad news for fans of Lowe’s ads, but perhaps good timing for the El Segundo, Calif.-based satellite-TV provider.
On Tuesday, the National Advertising Division (NAD), which reviews ads for truthfulness and accuracy, sided with a number of complaints about the Lowe ads from cable company Comcast, and ruled that DirecTV should discontinue using a number of claims in the campaign.
NAD’s recommendations included scrapping Lowe’s signature line, “Don’t be like this me. Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV.” The line “conveyed a comparative and unsupported superiority message.” The division also said there was no evidence to back up the claims that DirecTV had greater signal reliability, shorter customer-service wait times and better picture and sound quality than cable.
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Companies use the NAD to get a hearing on claims they believe are unfair without resorting to litigation. If a company does not comply with an NAD recommendation, the case can go to the Federal Trade Commission.
DirecTV said in a statement it will appeal NAD’s findings, adding that the company believes “the various Rob Lowe advertisements are so outlandish and exaggerated that no reasonable consumer would believe that the statements being made by the alter ego characters are comparative or need to be substantiated.”
The humorous but aggressive approach with Lowe and the ensuing complaints demonstrate how brutal the battle for pay-TV customers has become with the rise of cable and satellite cord-cutters content with getting their video content online.
“The category is not growing,” said Jon Gieselman, senior vice president of marketing for DirecTV. “People are leaving pay TV. It’s a share-shifting challenge. We’re trying to steal one another’s customers.”
The sign-up data showed that the campaign’s message was spot-on. In the third quarter of 2013, DirecTV lost 28,000 subscribers. The following quarter, when the campaign started its run, the company gained 149,000 subscribers. The figure was a steep increase over the 93,000 who signed up in the fourth quarter of 2013.
In an age when half of all TV households have the ability to zip through commercials on their DVRs, Lowe’s DirecTV spots cut through in a big way. They’ve run for free during the actor’s TV talk-show appearances. TV crews and magazines have gone behind the scenes to watch the makeup ritual that turns him into the depressing or disreputable cable-subscribing Rob Lowe he doesn’t want you to be.
The first series of Lowe ads aired in the fall. The Lowe who subscribes to DirecTV is shown describing the attributes of the service in glamorous, sleek settings. Those scenes alternate with his unappealing characters who have cable — Super Creepy Rob Lowe, Scrawny Arms Rob Lowe, who is unable to open a jar of mayonnaise and a broken-down Less Attractive Rob Lowe, who forlornly notes that cable “has pictures — and sound.”
When the two Lowes appear together at the end of each spot, the real one says the line the NAD decided was not supportable.
One of Lowe’s characters generated a well-publicized protest from the Shy Bladder Association. The group expressed dismay that Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe is shown standing at a urinal unable to relieve himself because there are other people around. DirecTV declined the organization’s demand to pull the spot that it believed was insensitive.
The ads also inspired one of the most viewed Internet memes after Super Bowl LXI, showing Lowe’s face on the body of losing Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll. It read: “I’m incredibly stupid Rob Lowe, I have the best running back in the NFL but I passed the ball from the 1, and I have cable.”
Angeline Close, an associate professor at the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas, said the ads not only are funny, but likely jolted consumers into considering DirecTV.
“When you can shock people like that, it opens up your mind and you’re more amenable to being persuaded by the message,” she said.
Gieselman said the spots worked so well in the fall, ad agency Grey was commissioned to create five more with new Lowe characters — including Total Deadbeat Rob Lowe who saves money by having surgery in a motel room. But he added that the plan was to move to a new approach before the ruling.
“We try to retire campaigns at their peak,” he said.
Gieselman said it’s possible Lowe could return to DirecTV ads in the future. “We’ve talked with Rob about doing something else in the future,” he said. “He loves the campaign. He’s completely gotten into the characters.”