TV advertising is MORE effective than it used to be!


I’ve seen (and published a few myself) many negative stories on the future of traditional TV recently. But after last week’s update on further double digit ad declines for 2015 in both the US and UK TV markets, I am willing to make some airtime for some good news. It’s a subtle point, but an AdWeek article quoting CBS executives did contain one nugget:

“And those viewers who do stick with their DVRs are fast-forwarding through fewer ads than they used to. While 50 percent of DVR users would routinely skip ads, “the number is declining now,” said Poltrack, “because they’re too busy on their phones to fast-forward through the ads,” given that two-thirds of users watch TV while also engaged with a second screen.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. In the 1980s, when people were watching TV, whenever an ad break came on some people would do something else during the commercials…maybe pick up the newspaper (remember those?) and read for 2-3 minutes. The ads were on in the background, but people ignored them, or at least thought they did. Studies showed that ads in the background were still heard, and still had an effect. People hear the jingle or catch the essential audio message, and retain brand identification.

In the late 1990s, PVRs came on the scene, and instead of watching the ads, more than half of viewers began to regularly skip all the commercials. That didn’t totally eliminate ad effectiveness: even at 16x speed, the basic message and logos still come through, but ads were now less effective than they had been. But skipping ads with a PVR takes some effort: you have to push the button and hold it down, and pay attention to the screen so that when the ads are over so you can start your program at the right spot. Sometimes you even go too far and have to rewind.

Today, why bother skipping the ad at all? Your smartphone or tablet is already in your hand, so why not just check out a few Facebook posts, a tweet or two, and tune out the ads running in the background? It’s less effort than ad skipping, and if there is anything that is near and dear to a couch potato’s heart, it’s minimizing effort.

This won’t be true of all viewers, but according to the CBS folks, it does seem to be happening more and more.

And I think this is a really important shift. Movies are a visual medium, but TV is a primarily about the audio. Try it sometime: watch a TV show with the sound off and it seldom makes sense. Now listen only, and don’t look at the screen: it’s basically just radio that happens to have pictures.

If Americans are using their PVRs less to skip commercials, and are instead multi-tasking while the audio plays in the background, we may be about to see an UPTICK in the effectiveness of TV ads. Which is fantastic news…the decline in ad revenues may not be 10-12% annually, but only 8-9%. 🙂


As a further thought, I am increasingly interested in the concept of attention. As one recent article put it “The currency of the media business is attention.” I plan on writing a whole article about the different kinds of attention, and what they mean.

But the CBS data point on ad skipping reveals yet another angle: in a world of multi-tasking, the media business may also be influenced by the different kinds of inattention! Whether it is TV commercials being fast forwarded, TV ads being heard in the background, radios in the background, pre-roll ads that are skipped, or banner ads that consumers claim not to see…how effective are any or all of these as ad formats? My hunch is that although consumers may think these ads have no influence, the reality is very different.

Pay attention? Don’t pay attention? It may not matter.


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One response to “TV advertising is MORE effective than it used to be!”

  1. karanmathursg says :

    Great article! We see the demotion of TV as a second screen happening very fast in Asia – especially in low income households. Owning a TV is a matter of pride, but media is being consumed over the phone via social media!

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