Seinfeld on Marketing

You can love it, you can hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Seinfeld – “The Show about Nothing” is arguably the best sitcom in the history of television. The show actually had something to offer for everyone. For some, it gave them the chance to laugh at the silly situations that in the end, led to nothing. For others, the humor revolving around the callous indifference to societal morals of the four lead (read neurotic) characters was appealing. For me, apart from the daily dose of sanity, it also offered interesting and humoristic perspectives that related to the field of marketing! (I know, I really need to get a life)

Why marketing, and why Seinfeld, of all the places, you may ask. The answer to the first question is very easy. While I do have benefited and drawn inspirations from this show in more ways than one, most of that material would not be appropriate for an official blog of a marketing research center, such as this. So we’d have to live with marketing for now.

Regarding my choice of Seinfeld as a source for marketing perspectives, there are four important reasons. One, I like the show. And, I must say, the show has never disappointed me. Sure, there are other sitcoms that are funny, witty, humorous, and all that a sitcom ought to be. But to me, nothing matches up to the comedic brilliance of Seinfeld. I think that’s a fair reason to look out for whatever I can get out of the show.

Two, the show is all about the values, judgments, behaviors, and beliefs (however eccentric they may be) of the four lead characters. Most often, the casualties to these eccentricities are the people around them and their choice of lifestyle. And when we talk about people and their lifestyles, a natural association would be the products they use and more importantly for the Seinfeld gang, a parody of the brands, products, services and, companies involved.

Three, I can recall so many episodes that had products as the central plot. Some of my favorites are the episodes involving Junior Mints, Pez Dispenser, Drake’s Coffee Cakes, Bosco Chocolate Syrup, and TV Guide. Probably the best among them was the Astronaut Pen. A small digression here.

This pen was the plot in Episode 20, Season 3 (titled The Pen) of the show where Jerry gets into an argument with a neighbor of his parents over the “astronaut pen”. This pen referred to the “AG7 Space Pen”, manufactured and marketed by Fisher Pens, that uses pressurized ink cartridges and is claimed to write in zero gravity and upside down, apart from other extreme conditions. Later the American and Russian space agencies adopted this pen for their use. It’s said that when this episode first aired, Jerry’s instant attraction towards this pen and its cool features led to an explosion in demand for the pen. Further, every time the episode aired since then, the distributors of this pen (TheWritersEdge.com) have witnessed an uptick in the sales of this pen. Pretty cool, huh!

And, I think the success of these episodes, and the entire series, lies in the usage of real-world products and how well it resonated with the viewers when these products were the subject of unforgiving parody. While the creators of the show may not have intended to use real-world products and brands for commercial benefits (product placements), it did show marketers what consumers thought of certain products and brands through their appreciation and TV ratings of such episodes. Of course, when products are lampooned on national television, not many marketers would be appreciative of that. Nevertheless, it contributes to enjoyable television and for people like me, a new source for marketing perspectives.

Finally, the impact of this show on the media & entertainment industry has and continues to be unparalleled. Consider this. At the start of the show’s ninth season in 1997, Seinfeld

  • Became the first TV series to command more than $1 million a minute for advertising – something that was achieved only by the Super Bowl
  • Garnered a spillover increase in ad rates for the other shows on NBC at that time, and an increase in viewership ratings for the shows that aired before and after Seinfeld’s 9 pm Thursday slot
  • Generated an estimated $180 million for NBC through just television advertising
  • Got its key characters – Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer – a fat paycheck of more than $5 million per episode to come back for one more season (10th season), in the process becoming the most expensive regular series in television history
  • Made NBC nearly seven times as profitable as ABC, the only other network to make money in 1996

In case you’re wondering about the show’s impact now, Seinfeld since going off air has earned $2.7 billion for Warner Brothers Entertainment (which has the rights) from reruns on regular TV channels and an additional $380 million from cable channels. And I haven’t even talked about the revenue generated from Seinfeld merchandise and the sale of DVDs!

Considering all this, and the impact this show has had on the financial and marketing charts of all commercial entities involved, I think something has worked beyond the trivial-yet-comedic plots, brilliant writing, and crazy characters. I think it’s the show’s ability to relate to the audience at the every-day level, and for the benefit of this post, to be an interesting source of marketing insights.

So how does Seinfeld relate to marketing, you may ask. Well for starters, I’m going to talk about one today.

Knowing your customers too little

In Season 4, Episode 3 (The Pitch) of the show, there’s an interesting and amusing conversation between Jerry and a telemarketer. Here’s the conversation:

Before I share my marketing thoughts on this episode, I have to say that this was one of most hilarious sequences I’ve seen on Seinfeld. Am sure even the Seinfeld “skeptics” would agree with me. So why is Jerry so rude? Or is he?

I think this amusing jab at telemarketers would have come only from a careful observation of how people perceived telemarketing calls. Agreed, in the show Jerry’s not really known for his people skills and that his fuse is rather short, but the fact that the show aired in the early 90s should say us something about the conditions then. The 80s witnessed an explosion in the number of household telephones in the US and this continued into the late 90s (until cell phones really picked up in the 2000s).[1] Capitalizing on the telephone penetration, marketers started using this trend to promote products and services through telephones. This resulted in telephone subscribers being bombarded with marketing calls offering anything from carpet cleaning to home insurance. And owing to limited technology, many of these telemarketing campaigns ended up as cold calling, not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that cold calling doesn’t always work and most certainly ends up disgruntling the phone subscribers. Further, the absence/limited availability of voice mail and caller ID facilities ensured that callers will have to answer the calls, only to hear a sales pitch for a kitchen knife so sharp that it can even cut through steel. Well, unless you run a metal fabrication unit in your home, you wouldn’t be interested in this “kitchen knife”, would you?

That brings me to the next issue, the identification of your target market. In this case, I think Jerry was one of the many consumers who were the subject of inaccurate targeting. Sure, one can always argue that Jerry was part of the correct target group but just reacted differently (to put it mildly) given what was happening in that episode. I don’t think that’s what happened here. See, in those times (not an indicator of my age), if you had an unoccupied desk with a telephone and a phone book, you’re all set to be a telemarketer. While dialing technologies for administering telephone surveys were witnessing scientific advancements, the same did not happen for the purpose of telemarketing and hence resulted in poor targeting. The reason for this, I believe, was in the usage of the telephone and the dialing process. For administering telephone surveys, researchers made sure the dialing methods identified the right respondents and did not alienate them, as it had important implications on responses and the various biases attached to it. However, the telemarketing operations was predominantly about acquiring as many customers as possible (which was why agents were often paid commissions based on the number of calls handled and/or customers acquired) and getting the products out there. So marketers felt that, the more calls placed the better are the chances of marketing the products, and more chances of roping in customers. So I feel that Jerry was not being rude here, but just expressing the popular perception about telemarketers that prevailed then.

To be entirely fair to telemarketers, the perception about them hasn’t changed much even now! The landmark “National Do Not Call” registry formed and implemented by the FTC & FCC in 2004 put a restraint on the telemarketing calls. The telemarketers managed to create a whole new line of software and electronic equipment that when installed at home, blocks telemarketing calls (yes, Google “telemarketing blocker”, and you should find some interesting hits). And, a search on Google with the keywords “telemarketing calls”, has the first hit as the National Do Not Call Registry, followed by 8 results that offer guidance on “dealing with unwanted telephone marketing calls”, “having a quiet evening at home, (sans the telemarketing calls)”, and “pranks to play on telemarketers” among others. The Wikipedia link on telemarketing rounds up the top 10 results. I think all these observations are a few sample indicators of what people think of telemarketers now.

Now, after all this verbiage, my point is that marketers should know their target market and more importantly recognize the importance of identifying the right target audience. Once this is achieved, the rest of the marketing process will fall into place or will at least become less tricky. And this Seinfeld conversation is but, one illustration of what might happen when you’re wrong about the target market.


[1] The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that the percentage of households with telephones in 1991 (the year when this episode aired) was around 93% or 95 million households, as compared to roughly 7 million mobile phone subscribers.

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This is the Center for Excellence in Brand & Customer Management’s (CEBCM) official blog created, developed and maintained by the research team at CEBCM. Stay tuned for periodic information on some of the cool marketing stuff being researched at CEBCM. In addition, we will be posting our two cents on some of the fascinating developments in the marketing world in general.

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