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TV Ad Exposure Exposed

February 28, 2010

Over the past decade or so there has been a lot of talk about the diminishing efficacy of TV advertising, but I’m not sure how much of this criticism gets to the heart of the matter. According Nielsen the average American still consumes over four hours of TV programming everyday and ad skipping via DVRs still seems to be negligible.

In 2009 Sequent Partners, Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, the Council for Research Excellence, and Nielsen reported findings of a ground breaking research project. If you want to get a better understanding of how Americans use media, I highly recommend reading the full report.

The study reported “TV users were exposed to, on average, roughly an hour a day (61.1 minutes) of live TV ads and promos.” This figure may be a bit inflated, but still stunning if you consider the average participant’s total exposure to computer and mobile screens was only 2 hours and 43 minutes a day. As a comparison, the average daily exposure to television clocked in at 6 hours and 3 minutes. For some reason participants in this study consumed two more hours of television everyday than the Nielsen panel – as reported in the Nielsen Three Screens Report.

What really troubles me about studies like this is the phrase ‘exposure to TV ads’. I submitted a request to the CRE for their definition but haven’t heard back yet. From what I can deduce, ‘exposure to ads’ means being in close enough proximity to a TV to see and/or hear the advertisements. Exposure doesn’t necessarily mean looking at the TV or actively listening to the audio. And there lies the problem.

“Exposure” is not a useful measure of consumer attention or engagement, and without at least a minimal level of attention, one would assume a TV advertisement would have little if any effect on the user.

So what do we know about TV ad exposure and a viewer’s level of attention? Not much, and I’m not so sure our industry is eager to find out.

Page 46 of the VCM final report includes a chart illustrating ‘concurrent media exposure’ during regular TV content and advertisements. The diagram is cryptic, but its obvious concurrent media exposure is significantly elevated when TV commercials are running. I assume environmental factors such as conversations, etc. are accounted for in the data represented by the blue triangle.

Concurrent media exposure sounds benign. Most people assume they can “multi-task” and successfully consume multiple media streams simultaneously. As I noted last November, researchers at Stanford University study found media multi-taskers cannot process more than one information string at a time. A 2007 MRI study reported similar findings.

Based on the VCM study and other studies, I diagrammed my hypothesis of how much attention viewers pay to TV advertising. During TV advertisements, the percentage of viewers who are highly engaged is quite small. How small? We don’t know for sure. To my knowledge, nobody has done a comprehensive study to find out how attentive viewers are to TV commercials. And that seems quite odd given billions of dollars are spent on television advertising every year.

So what does this all mean? Every marketing communications activity should be evaluated by attention and engagement measures, not exposure. CPM (cost-per-thousand) can be extremely misleading when comparing one marcom activity to the next.

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