Dental Marketing Mediums: Television

Part two of our blog series on high-risk marketing mediums covers television. Similar to what we discussed during the first blog posting of this series, television is one of the first marketing mediums most dentists want to try. However, before trying this mass medium, you will want to do your best to determine if it will deliver the kind of results that justify the high price tag. Are dental TV ads really the right way to go for your practice?

Television: a big-ticket medium with sizable potential

There is no medium in the history of western civilization that has had more of an impact on buying decisions than television. Most of us can still remember television commercials from our childhood. Maybe it was Clara Peller asking us ‘Where’s the Beef?’, or Bartles and Jaymes standing out in their field, or even Mr. Whipple asking us not to squeeze the Charmin. Even if we haven’t seen these commercials in over 20 years, most of us can still picture them in our mind’s eye, and whether we buy the company’s product or not, we maintain a strong sense of familiarity with it.

Given the power that television commercials continue to have over us, it’s no surprise that many of us want to harness that power and get it working for our businesses. And for many businesses, a good TV commercial can have a tremendous impact on brand recognition and, ultimately, sales. However, it’s not a medium for the faint of heart or light of wallet. Purchasing airtime for a dental TV ad campaign can be an expensive proposition. And before you start shelling out for airtime, you may be looking at an even bigger expense: the development of the ad.

As with radio, we counsel our clients to establish themselves in other mediums first, such as online marketing, direct mail and print, before considering a television ad campaign. In most cases, you just won’t see good returns on television advertising unless you have a robust, well-established marketing plan that has been in place for a few years. In terms of deployment progression, television is the marketing medium you will break into LAST—after online marketing, after direct mail and after various forms of print media.

The reality is that in most US markets, the over-the-air television ad rates (for instance, those of your local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates) are likely to be far beyond your available budget. But cable television IS a viable promotion medium for a dentist.

If you are ready to invest in a dental TV ad campaign, you’ll need to put some careful thought into the creative content for the ad. Without a clear, compelling message and a memorable creative concept, your ad is likely to be lost in the general noise that people can now easily silence with a click of the remote.

So, what do you need to develop a strong creative concept and a great and memorable ad? A lot. To begin with, you need a concept capable of communicating the essence of what you do and why someone should care in 30 seconds or less. That alone is a spectacular challenge. Now, maybe you’re the Steven Spielberg of dentistry, but you may want to leave the development of a creative concept to a professional ad agency. Then you’ll need to flesh out the concept with a good script, hire actors or a professional voice-over actor and find a competent audio and video company to shoot and edit the spot.

When larger companies consider television advertising, the creative work and production is usually far less expensive than the airtime that they will be purchasing. However, most dental practices will not have a big budget, and deploying a large amount on production and creative could result in the campaign not even getting off the ground.

You could save some money by writing the script yourself, and getting your local cable company to come out and do the shoot for you inexpensively, but the results are often amateurish and ineffective. That’s not to say it isn’t possible to shoot a good commercial this way, but you need a strong, memorable concept, professionally executed, to help you break through the clutter on TV and leave an impression in viewers minds. If your creative stinks, it doesn’t matter how many TV spots you buy, you’re just going to be throwing money away.

That’s not to say that a television ad is always a bad idea—some dental practices have seen tremendous returns from their television advertising campaigns. But you need to go into this type of marketing with your eyes wide open, both in terms of the costs involved and in terms of the returns you expect to see.

Here are some key considerations when creating a television ad and making an ad buy:

Television footprint: Make sure your ads will be seen throughout your core geographic market, and with cable television, watch for what is called market fragmentation. An example of market fragmentation might be when two large cable companies each service your core market. In this case, you would have to make two media buys with two different cable companies. In order to afford both buys, you would need to purchase half the volume on each station, which dilutes your frequency. You would also be paying a higher rate for each buy, because you’re purchasing smaller amounts from each vendor. Even worse, you will probably be buying broadcast coverage that extends beyond your target area, which means you’re wasting a portion of your ad budget on reaching people who won’t use your services.

Television programming: As with radio, you will want to focus on getting airtime on channels that cater to a female demographic aged 25 years and above. In this regard, television is much simpler than radio. It is easy to tell the cable advertising rep, “We want our ads to run on LifeTime, Soap Channel, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and HGTV.”

Television scripting: When you promote on cable TV, the TV production crew will generally come out to your practice, do an interview with you and perhaps film a patient testimonial or two. These crews are knowledgeable professionals, but they can still make a few mistakes:

  • Make sure they don’t film an operatory, as dental chairs in an operatory actually evoke a fear response in many dental consumers. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose if you show a dental operatory. If you have a lovely practice and a warm, inviting reception area, restrict the filming to those areas, or shoot the ad off-location in some attractive, neutral space.
  • As with radio, you won’t have enough time to tell the whole story of the practice. Choose instead to showcase a limited number of benefits— perhaps two or three. Focus on the aspects of your practice that your target audience would be most interested in and those that differentiate you from other dentists. If you welcome families with kids, you’ll want to say that. If a benefit of your practice is that you do everything under one roof so the patients won’t have to be referred out, then say that. Maybe you’re open on Saturday—that’s a huge benefit for a working family. So, in this example you’ve got three benefits to promote. Don’t try to do much more than that. A very workable approach is to shoot multiple advertisements that each highlight two or three different services or benefits. Then you rotate the spots just like you do with radio.

Why your tight budget might stretch to a television ad campaign

It’s getting harder and harder to put together an effective ad campaign on the television—because there’s more and more of it! Notice how the channels just keep proliferating and fragmenting? Well, the audience is fragmenting, too, AND globalizing, which makes it harder and harder to find the right pairs of eyes for your television ad.

Fortunately, the same forces that are creating 1,000s of different channels are also creating new opportunities for local businesses looking for worthwhile television advertising opportunities.

Television advertising crisis = small business opportunity

Television has been undergoing some pretty seismic changes in the past 25 years. Cable TV originally started in places like the Appalachian Mountains in order to help people get better television reception. Back in the early 1980s, when networks like ESPN, MTV and CNN were launched, it wasn’t even known if these companies could survive. By 1988, it seemed that these networks were going to make it, and the viewership looked something like this:

  Daytime PrimeTime
Broadcast Television 76.9% 78.8%
Ad-Supported Cable (networks like CNN) 13.8% 11.6%
Pay TV (Showtime, HBO) 9.3% 9.6%

Cable grew steadily over the years, and today, ad-supported cable television has a stronger viewership than any other type of programming source.

The following chart shows television viewership by programming source. You can see for yourself in the chart below:

Primetime HH Rating

The dominance of cable television is good news and bad news for small advertisers.

First, the bad news.

As you know from watching television, the choices in programming are endlessly growing. Every time they add something like the cooking channel, the fitness channel, or the Outdoor Life Network, another group of people becomes regular watchers of those channels. For big companies that rely on broadcast TV and its ability to get big audiences, this is a problem. How much has broadcast viewership dwindled over the years?

As an indicator of mainstream popularity, take a look at how the ratings for these ‘seventh highest rated’ shows have dwindled over the years:

In 1979, M*A*S*H received an average Nielsen rating of 25. In 2006, Grey’s Anatomy received a Nielsen rating of 11.8. In 2010, Two and a Half Men received a Nielsen rating of 6.1.

The impact of this trend on American society (and on advertisers) is enormous. Back in the middle of the 20th century, when programming choices were few and large groups of people watched the same shows, it was relatively easy for large corporations to buy advertising time on network television and promote their megabrands. A media director for Colgate-Palmolive or Coca Cola could simply pick their media slots on prime-time network television, run their ads, and the big audience was assured. The networks could charge high prices, purchase whatever programming they chose and profitably operate their businesses.

But today, technologies such as cable television, digital video recorders (that can skip commercials) and Internet television are dramatically affecting American viewership. As a result, the value (and the price) of network advertising is dropping. That’s great for Pepsi and Nike, but maybe not so great for you.

Network ad rates are still far beyond what the average (or even the extraordinary) dental practice can afford.

But there IS good news

In exchange for broadcast fees, ad-supported cable channels (like ESPN or TBS) allow for local businesses to run advertising. These ad-supported channels charge cable or satellite providers a certain fee per subscriber (anywhere from a few dollars to a few cents, depending on the popularity of the content), and allow them to earn revenues by selling a certain amount of advertising inventory to local advertisers. This is why you might see an ad for a national or global brand like FedEx or Coke next to an ad for the pizza store down the street.

This trend we are describing is often referred to as ‘disintermediation’. It means that the intermediary (the television programmers) are experiencing a shift in their audiences, and the buyers of airtime (advertisers) must change their purchases because the large television audiences on network television simply don’t exist as they once did.

And while disintermediation creates a unique set of challenges for networks, production companies, and large corporate advertisers, it creates an emerging and attractive opportunity for smaller, more localized businesses that might benefit from communicating with a more targeted audience.

Dental practices are uniquely positioned to benefit from this emerging trend.

Because the cable companies have advertising inventory that they NEED TO SELL.

In your local area, your cable system has scores of channels for which it has available advertising inventory. Some of those channels, such as ESPN, Fox News, or TBS, have substantial audiences that, in many time slots, compete with network programming. Other channels are likely to have audiences of less than 50 people.

That’s right, there are channels on your cable television system right now that are being watched by less than 50 people. As you can imagine, this inventory is being sold off at very cheap prices. Often, you can buy advertising segments on some of these local cable systems for as little as $5-$10 per spot. And most of the time, you can buy advertising time on more popular networks for as little as $75-$100 per spot.

Are we now talking about an advertising opportunity that seems to be in your budget? Before you run right out and call your local ad sales rep, take a few minutes with us and let us give you a crash course in media planning and buying.

Television media planning and buying: first, forget high-school math

Many of us may struggle to remember all the things we learned in high-school math classes. We feel pretty certain we understand how multiplication and addition work, and we’re comfortable around basic equations, but then it all starts to get fuzzy.

Fortunately, when it comes to media planning and buying, you can forget everything you ever knew about basic math. Because in media math, this equation makes sense:

6 X 10000 ≠ 60000 X 1

That’s right.

Six times 10,000 does NOT equal 60,000 times 1.

Because an ad shown six times to 10,000 people does not equal the effect of an ad shown one time to 60,000 people.

The networks will actually charge you a little more to show your ad six times to 10,000 people than they will to show it once to 60,000. And at first glance, you might think that getting to show your ad to 60,000 people would result in a far better return than showing it to 10,000. After all, it’s a numbers game, and the more people who see your ad, the more people are likely to act on it. So why wouldn’t you go for the ad buy that delivers six times as many eyeballs?

We’ll tell you why. Let’s start with a two-million-dollar example.

You may remember the ‘dot-com’ days of the late nineties. Companies were fighting over Internet space, where untold wealth lay waiting to be discovered. Venture capitalists and stockholders alike were wildly funding Internet companies that promised to capture millions of online customers and deliver billions in profits.

Of course, we know in hindsight how well that idea worked out.

But you may remember that some of these companies actually chose to spend their television advertising budget based on the principle that 60,000 eyeballs were better than 10,000. In fact, in 2000, 17 dot-com, e-commerce and tech companies bet upwards of two million dollars that putting their ad in front of 88.5 million pairs of eyes JUST ONCE was going to pay off big.

During the 2000 Super Bowl, hopeful upstarts such as,, and spent their venture capital money on 30 seconds of precious ad space during the game. And while some of these ads may have been entertaining or even funny, we never saw them before, we never saw them since, and the ads, like the companies that paid to produce and air them, are now faded memories.

When planning an advertising campaign, six times 10,000 is worth a heck of a lot more than one times 60,000. Successful advertising is ALL ABOUT REPEAT EXPOSURE.

On average, you can expect it to take five exposures to a television ad before a particular viewer feels as though they ‘know’ or ‘recognize’ the advertiser. If your ad is not memorable, it will take even more. (And it won’t be memorable if you do what people ‘expect’—like show them shots of your front door, your waiting room, a few seconds of you, and maybe an operatory, all while trying to speed-read everything you do in your practice in 30 seconds and still have time left over to read your address, phone number, or URL.)

So how do you make sure you get the most out of your ads?

Get the ‘response curve’ working for you

When you show your ad to the same people more than once, the chances that they will respond to it go up exponentially each time they see it. This is the response curve, and it’s your new best friend.

Here’s how it works.

As you buy advertising, people will begin to see your ads for the first time. And most of the time, if they’ve never seen it before, they will promptly forget it. Think of your own viewing patterns. You turned your television set on to see the news, or get caught up in a movie, or view some sporting event. You did not turn on your television to find a beer that tastes great – or a local restaurant, garage or plumber. These ads are interruptive, and many viewers disregard the ads. The ads will be less disregarded if they are entertaining or interesting.

As our dot-com friends found out in 2000, not even a thrilling game where the outcome hung on a last-second stretch to the end zone by Titan receiver Kevin Dyson (who came up one agonizing yard short!) could make you remember anything that had to say, or even that even existed. You watched the ad, promptly forgot it, and then never heard from them again. Really not very effective.

But if you had heard from them four more times, you might have started to become more familiar with their business and, perhaps, have started to think about the benefits of their business to you as a consumer.

As an advertiser, once you have established familiarity and the audience feels that it ‘knows’ you, then you get the opportunity to do some really effective advertising, as you come out with ads that communicate the benefits you offer, hoping to create ‘preference’ in the mind of your audience.

Here’s a chart that shows you exactly how much of a response you can expect, depending on the number of times your audience is exposed to your ad.


Advertising Exposure Message Recognition

1 16.55%

2 61.92%

3 78.82%

4 85.12%

5 87.47%

6 88.34%

7 88.67%

8 88.79%

9 88.83%

10 88.85%

Source: Developments in Business Simulation & Experiential Exercises, MODELING ADVERTISING MEDIA EFFECTIVENESS; Hugh M. Cannon, John D. Leckenby, Avery M. Abernethy

In the table above, you can see that you make incremental gains as you expose people to your ad the second and third time. The table shown represents the attempt of market research experts to plot out a ‘generic’ level of recognition gained by exposure to an ad. Of course, recognition does not equal ‘preference’ or ‘buying behavior’, but it does, of itself, represent a value to any business, including your dental practice.

What the chart is saying is that the first time your audience sees your ad, perhaps 16 percent of them will feel they ‘recognize’ the company. After three exposures, the number goes to 78.8 percent. Can you see how showing your commercial three times to four people is more beneficial than showing your commercial one time to 12 people?

Keep in mind that interesting, surprising or entertaining features help to heighten your audience’s awareness and retention of your ad. Conversely, if your ad is generic and has nothing special—a catchy jingle, interesting visuals or humor, for example—that makes it memorable, the curve will shift to the right, meaning it will require more exposures to achieve recognition.

Making sure you allocate enough budget to ensure optimal repetition of your ad is critical to its success. Please, before you blow two million bucks on a Super Bowl extravaganza, come talk to us! As we have shown you, disintermediation offers some incredible opportunities for affordable, effective television advertising. As audiences become more localized, fragmented, and smaller, advertising prices will decline to where there will be opportunities for a dental practice to target a highly relevant audience at a cost that ensures a good return on investment.

Syndicated ads: the big-budget commercials with the little price tags

One way to get a big-budget ad at an affordable price is to purchase a syndicated ad for dentistry.

A syndicated ad is shot by an advertising agency and then sold to local businesses in a number of different cities across the country. You might be surprised, when traveling in another city, to turn on the television in your hotel room, and see a commercial for a car dealer, jeweler or lawyer that looks very similar to one you regularly see promoting a local business in your hometown. That’s a syndicated commercial. Using syndication, a local business can get celebrity endorsements, the advertising rights to popular songs, or characters portrayed by professional actors at a much lower price than if the commercial had been produced directly.

If you’re interested in learning more about syndicated ads, the information is as close as your computer. Simply Google “Dentist Television Commercials” and you’ll find a number of companies that will sell you pre-shot ads and customize them with your own name, business information and logo.

The three stages of a successful television ad campaign

Okay, the cost of television advertising hasn’t scared you off, and you want to take the plunge and develop fresh creative instead of relying on the “commercial-in-a-can” approach that syndicated advertising offers. If you plan to develop television ads to promote your practice, you need to know something about the three progressive stages of a television ad campaign.

Most successful television campaigns revolve around three distinct objectives: aided recall, unaided recall, and preference. Advertisers generally attempt to develop these objectives in stages. Aided recall comes first: this is the phase in which an ad viewer might not remember that the “Where’s the Beef” ad was for Wendy’s, but when presented with a list that includes Arby’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, they’ll recall that the ad was, in fact, for Wendy’s.

When a viewer can recall your ad with some help, it means the ad is starting to penetrate their consciousness and build awareness of your brand or business. Unaided recall is the next, later phase in an ad campaign. At this stage, viewers will be able to recall the right brand when they hear the “Where’s the Beef” slogan. At this point, the advertiser has managed to instill an active awareness in the viewer. Once that level of awareness has been achieved, the final phase can be undertaken: encouraging a preference for YOUR products and services over those of your competitors.

Using frequency and variety to engage your audience

One thing that you will see in the syndicated commercials—and something that should certainly be a part of your television production planning—is the development of a related series of commercials. These are commercials that are recognizably part of a series, but which incorporate different ideas or content in each ad.

This technique helps you build enough frequency to gain memorability, but stops your ads from becoming a boring and unwelcome intrusion into people’s television watching. Remember that your ad is interruptive: no one turns on their television set because they want to hear from a dentist. They turn it on to be entertained, so the least you can do is try to incorporate some variety into each ad. If you develop a differentiated series of commercials, people will start to remember your commercials, and will almost be intrigued at what comes next. If you are going to get syndicated commercials, you might consider getting a series of commercials that communicate ideas about your practice in an entertaining manner. That way, you will have content to run for a sustained period of time.

Perhaps most importantly, resist the urge to try to say everything you want to say in 30 or 60 seconds. That is an incredibly short amount of time, and cramming your ad full of information and messages will overwhelm and confuse your viewers. We can remember one dental commercial we reviewed that had 26 different images (we counted!) in a 30 second commercial. Obviously, the dentist had a lot to say, but this is an extremely ineffective way of saying it. Limit yourself to two or three main benefits in each ad.

Measuring returns on a television ad campaign

When dentists consider advertising, one of their first questions is often, “What kind of returns can I expect to see?” What they’re usually really asking is: “Will I recoup my investment?”

The truth is, it’s very difficult to measure the returns in this direct way. Often, a television ad campaign will yield returns in terms of general awareness or “recall,” as described above. Most dental practices do not consider awareness or recall to be business assets in themselves, and it’s difficult to measure the effect of these assets on actual sales.

If you want to give patients the reasons to choose your dental practice, it is awfully hard to do in a 30-second commercial. If you want to get patients to notice you and emotionally react to your practice in a particular way, then television might be effective. In our view, television is a better tool for emotional response (branding) than it is for direct response. Since most practices tend to measure return on investment in the form of short-term direct response, television is not highly utilized by dental practices, nor is it a medium that most practices consider first in choosing marketing media.

Now that we have thoroughly reviewed the advantages and challenges of television advertising campaigns you have gained the knowledge to decide if this is worth while risk for your dental practice. Television is one of the most popular mass mediums with the potential for great returns, but not without risk. You should only attempt a television ad if:

  • Your dental practice is established
  • Your current dental marketing plan includes direct, print and online marketing campaigns
  • Your marketing budget is extensive enough to accommodate both your current marketing plan and cover the cost to create good ads with the appropriate reach and frequency
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