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TV Ads And Viewers: Together At Last?

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TV Ads And Viewers: Together At Last?

A study has shown that viewers enjoy TV shows more with advertising breaks, but it’s no cause for celebration.

One of the surest signals that advertising agencies are out of step with their target markets is their overall assessment of the popularity of advertising. Ask any one of the young and beautiful inhabitants of a major agency about advertising, and you will inevitably be introduced to a world in which the public loves ads, in which families discuss ads together and create long lists of their favorite campaigns.

So deep is the general affection for advertising that, when offered a chance to skip through ads while watching pre-recorded programs on Sky+ or another PVR (DVR), households will opt to watch (and enjoy) the ads, rather than zip through them.

Alas, such thoughts are total fantasy. Enter the living room of any British or American family and ask them about TV ads. In every house (with the exception of those that have spawned a member of the advertising industry) you will be met by dark recriminations and foul language. TV advertising is, from a consumer’s perspective, a pointless annoyance which spoils the favorite activity of TV viewing.

Actually that last bit may not be true. According to some findings about to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, advertising does not necessarily have a negative impact on TV viewing. In a paper titled ‘Enhancing television-viewing experience through commercial interruptions’, four US professors claim that ads may actually serve to improve the TV-viewing experience.

The paper analyzes a study in which 87 undergraduate students were divided into two treatment groups. One group was shown an episode of Taxi, complete with the 30-second TV spots originally included in a syndicated 2005 broadcast. The other group viewed the show with no ad breaks.

The students then ranked how much they had enjoyed the show and also indicated whether they preferred it to an episode of Happy Days that they had also watched.

The sample that watched the show without ads did not enjoy Taxi as much as Happy Days. Remarkably, however, the students who had watched Taxi with ads rated it higher than did the other sample, and better than the episode of Happy Days.

The result, which was statistically significant, suggests that advertising might improve the perceived quality of television shows.

‘Commercials make TV programs more enjoyable to watch – even bad commercials,’ explained Leif Nelson, a co-author of the research and an assistant professor of marketing at UC San Diego.

Before agencies start to celebrate scientific proof that ads really do make the world a better place, it is worth examining the explanation for the positive impact of ads on program enjoyment. Viewers, it seems, begin to enjoy a show so much that they start to take for granted the pleasure that they are experiencing. By interrupting the program with a series of ads, the consumer is taken to a less pleasant place. When they return to the show, they rediscover how good it was and their ultimate level of enjoyment increases.

The good news for advertisers is that the fruit of their labor does indeed make people enjoy TV more. The bad news is that this is because of the unwelcome, interruptive nature of what they produce. ‘Advertisers might smile and pat themselves on the back for this, but it’s not going to lead people to keep commercials in their life,’ says Professor Nelson. ‘The strong feeling people have against commercials is truly ubiquitous. It swamps everything.’

30 Seconds On The Findings of the ‘Enhancing Television-Viewing Experience’ Paper

  • The subjects of the study were shown Taxi. The sitcom was selected because the subjects had been shown not to have any pre-existing opinions on it. Commercials shown included ads for a New York law firm and network promotions for shows such as Geraldo and The Simpsons.
  • One potential limiting factor for the research’s conclusion is age. When the experiment was conducted with a broader age range, only subjects under the age of 35 experienced more enjoyment from ad-interrupted programs, while those over 35 preferred the shows without any ads.
  • Another important factor is narrative involvement. The researchers have also shown that the enjoyment effect of ads is more pronounced when viewers are watching less-involving content. The enjoyment of shows with strong narrative plots such as The Sopranos could actually be lessened by the presence of ads.
  • Additional experiments, using other program content and other ads, produced similar results.

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2 Comments

Brandon R Allen on March 12th, 2009 said

For advertisers, it’s time to get with the times and look at ways that they can be innovative with advertising and quit holding on to the status quo of old marketing techniques. It’s one thing to speak positively about your industry, it’s another to be totally ignorant about what is going on around you. Advertisers (Not that they are the only ones) have a hard time looking at their industry objectively. A question that I have is what does the future of TV look like without commercials?

Scott on March 12th, 2009 said

Interesting post Mark. I have seen another writer (unfortunately I can’t recall where) that argues that these findings might have come from the fact that these TV shows are designed to have commercials with them. Essentially, they are designed to have a plot that has multiple highs and lows to coincide with commercial breaks.

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