Five myths about television advertising

5 myths about television advertising

In the process of examining all of the research available, we have been able to demonstrate that many of the most widely held myths about commercial television are simply wrong. As a result there seems to have been a noticeable drop in the doom-laden headlines and sense of mild despair. Here are five of the most prominent myths.


Contrary to what the doom-mongers have been saying, we can see that broadcast viewing figures have remained at exactly the same levels, or even slightly higher, than through the 1980s and 1990s. This has happened despite reports of new technologies and platforms taking viewers away from the domestic set, currently the only device measured by BARB.

The fact that commercial share of viewing continues to rise in line with an increasing digital universe as people got access to relatively more commercial channels, (especially among younger people) has highlighted TV's ability to reach mass audiences as well as niche targets. This trend is likely to continue until digital switchover is completed in 2012 (see Figure 1).


These trends have helped disprove Myth 2: that TV is increasingly less cost-effective and hence unaffordable. In real terms, TV is bought at a more cost-effective price than we were seeing in the mid-1980s (we'll get on to the effectiveness part of that equation later). On a daily basis, the average British consumer watches 40 TV commercials in real time – that's 2.2 billion ads viewed every day – delivering deflation and sensational value for advertisers (see Figure 2).

Media pundits predicted consumer resistance to digital switchover. But with digital penetration now over 80%, multi-channel TV is helping to drive viewing and improve targeting. We have whole channels now that can reach niche consumer groups as efficiently as their equivalents in the magazine world. It is also possible for brands to get closer than ever to the TV content these viewers enjoy.


In fact, the opposite is happening. We've seen a massive vote of confidence by the UK public in terms of the amounts spent on big new TV sets (the size of the average TV screen in the UK is growing by an inch a year) – widescreen, flatscreen, HD-ready – and often with cinema surround sound – and we have an opportunity for advertisers to engage with their consumers in bigger and better style.


One of the most important myths being shattered is that television can no longer deliver true advertising effectiveness. Two of the major business successes across 2006, the launch of Magners Cider and the resurgence of Marks & Spencer, have both publicly credited the contributions of their TV advertising activity.

An even more comprehensive analysis of media 'payback' came from the recent IPA publication Marketing in the Age of Accountability, which demonstrated that TV was the most effective media channel in influencing major shifts in sales, profitability and market share.

Not only that, but the report by Les Binet and Peter Field showed TV's effectiveness has been increasing since the launch of multi-channel TV. We have just embarked on a study of advertising payback with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which we expect to shed more light on this important topic (see Figure 3).


The young are reported to be taking to the new ways of accessing content with enthusiasm. However, they've always been enthusiastic about television, especially when they can make it more relevant to themselves. They are watching just as much commercial telly as ever and their higher than average interest in TV as social currency through the shared experience of viewing live programming does not suggest they are going to desert it in the foreseeable future. Instead, as the young always do, they will make it relevant to their own lives (often with the help of the broadcasters themselves: Channel 4's teen drama Skins is a good example of this brave new world).


We believe there are three interlinked factors: the growth of high-speed internet, the liberation of TV from the living room, and the fears wrought by the PVR. They have been harder to disprove because they are all related to TV's future.


The impact of the internet, not just on business but on all of us at a personal level, has been profound. We use it for many of the things that used to devour vast chunks of time (paying bills, shopping, pursuing passions) or were limited by time and space (finding new friends and hanging out with them, sharing the fruits of our creativity). But there is no evidence that we are changing the essential nature of what we do, just the ways we do it. Young people have always 'hung out' with their peers, it's just that we used to do that in coffee bars or shopping malls or behind the bike sheds. The internet, of course, is not a medium but an overarching technology that can deliver existing media, including newspapers and radio, as well as giving birth to new ones such as social media, turning private pursuits into public discourse.

There has been limited research on the internet relative to the amount people talk about it, and what has been conducted has often been questionable. Unfortunately, online does not have anything to compare to BARB to help us evaluate the two activities fairly. But we do now have the IPA's Touchpoints survey, as well as that hardy perennial the TGI, to see how much time is spent on the internet compared to TV (see Figure 4).

Contrary to the popular view, both of these sources show TV time outstripping online time by a ratio of between two and three to one, across all demographic groups. There is increasing evidence of media meshing – watching TV and being online at or around the same time – which Touchpoints indicates peaks at a high of 12% of the TV audience during weekday peaktime. Meanwhile, internet time does not seem to consist of a great deal of watching TV online – as Figure 5 shows. The main use of the internet is for work and email, and if even half of those watching 'music/film/entertainment online' were watching TV content, that would still be less than 5% of all online time.

Things may change when a critical mass of households have a direct link from their high-speed broadband connection to their TV screen, but then that will still be 'TV viewing' and we expect BARB to be able to measure that viewing by the next contract start. This will undoubtedly result in more viewing away from the schedules, towards on-demand and a limited amount of 'long tail' content. But this may be more of an opportunity to the advertiser than a threat to the advertising model, because it is all part of the liberation of the TV set during the third age of television.


The concept of the 'Third Age of Television' is one of liberation: complete freedom of choice for the consumer in an on-demand environment and liberation of content from the domestic household set. Content will be king, which explains why the major broadcasters are pioneering services via IPTV, web TV and mobile TV, which are mainly being taken up by the classic early adopters, the young.

Early data from the trials of both IPTV and mobile TV indicate a lot of additional viewing among enthusiasts but relatively modest projections of penetration and share of all viewing by the end of the decade. They will undoubtedly have an impact, but this is more likely to be at opposite ends of the viewing spectrum. At one end will be 'convenience TV', which might mean a five-minute catch-up of last night's soap on mobile or internet-delivered on-demand viewing of a series that might otherwise be missed. And at the other end will be 'treat' TV that could demand a premium, such as major sporting events or first-run movies (indeed the competition from the latter may well affect DVD stores most of all).

Although the evidence suggests a great deal of viewing will continue to be to the live schedules, ondemand also offers specific benefits for advertisers: a highly targeted audience, a selective programme environment, and an uncluttered break environment. The even better news is that, when offered a choice between paying a small fee to view or watching an ad 'pre-roll', a significant majority of consumers choose the ads.


The PVR (or DTR, or Sky+ to most users) has been a revelation. It is highly valued by those who have one and yet they use it relatively infrequently. PVRs are already installed in 11% of all homes (28% of Sky homes), surpassing all predictions, and yet it has had nothing like the effect on viewing that had been anticipated. It has been touted as the supreme ad avoidance technology, producing the death of the 30-second spot, and yet the majority of PVR homes watch more ads in real time than they did before they installed one.

Why were we worried? Probably because the links to the electronic programme guides means it would be possible to set it to record a whole evening's viewing in a couple of minutes, while any part of the recorded programme can be fast-forwarded, just like the old VHS machines. So, who wouldn't want to 'download' an evening's viewing and then view in timeshift mode, zipping through the ads in seconds? Well, so far, not too many of the early adopters, who are usually more enthusiastic about their technology.

Three separate studies, released in the latter part of 2006, showed broadly similar results. BARB and Sky (via their setmeter panels) and London Business School together with ACB (through video observation of real PVR households viewing TV) demonstrated that viewing is higher when a PVR is installed; that the majority of household viewing is still to live programming, up to 88%; most recorded content is watched on the day of transmission; and, even when they do watch in time-shift mode, between a third and half of the ads are still watched in real time.


We have never doubted that television as a medium has a future. We are both old enough to have witnessed the 'death of cinema' at least four times. In fact, as with cinema, the business models that the new digital technologies are helping to create offer huge opportunities for television, and for TV advertisers. Why?

There are many reasons for the positive potential of these new business models: increased viewing opportunities; better targeting (including addressable advertising, already a reality in the US); additional revenue streams or an efficient response mechanism via online (Google is encouraging its clients to use TV as it boosts branded search efficiencies). We believe the future of television couldn't be more exciting for viewers and brands. Its proven strengths aren't going to go away but they will be enhanced by TV's controllability, interactivity, portability and enhanced creativity. There are no ends in sight, just new beginnings.


Many of the reasons for television's effectiveness could be seen in the footage from our recent Engagement Study (see 'Details of Research'). We saw just how TV viewers relate to the ads, discuss them, sing along to them and share the experience with their housemates, friends and family. It reinforced the importance of TV's role in creating brand emotions and associations in the memory, both implicit and explicit. In short, it showed us why TV advertising works so effectively.

Engagement can be Identified through a Wide Range of Behaviours

When we took on this project we worried at the prospect of lots of footage of people sitting stock still, hopefully looking at the screen, but otherwise not doing much. How naïve we were! When the respondents were sitting down watching the ads, around two-thirds (68%) recorded some observable ad-related behaviour, according to ACB's team of professional ethnographers. What's more, positive behaviours outnumbered negative by almost two to one (43% compared to 25%).

The range of behaviours was fascinating. Music is important – a cue for viewers to sing along, whistle, clap and even dance – which they did on many occasions. People will stop the PVR and play back an ad in real time. They laugh out loud, openly express wonder at the creative execution, or refer the creative to things that are important in their daily lives (which we call self-referencing). They mimic the voice-overs affectionately and regularly play 'guess the ad' games. They can also shout at the telly, roll their eyes and disparage the ad to each other. Just not nearly so often.

Engagement is not the Same as Attention

Although engagement is more likely to occur when attention is more focused on the TV, there were numerous examples of high engagement springing from a very low-attention base. People would interrupt deep conversation for a shared favourite and mimic an ad even when they had their backs to the screen. We recorded many examples of strong engagement occurring even when people were in a different room.

The main driver of attention is concurrent behaviours, so it is not surprising that engagement is higher when there are few distracting activities. However, we need to look closer at the types of activity being conducted; there are many common activities that are 'heads-in TV' activities – where the activity is created around the TV set (eating and drinking, exercise, some forms of housework) where engagement is often higher than it is when viewing is the sole activity.

The Power of the Shared Experience

In this era of the importance of word of mouth and the power of the viral message, it is reassuring to know that TV offers the most viral medium of them all – where ads are often discussed and shared with each other in the same physical space. It is something unique to television, and part of the power of the medium to get advertisers' messages out there.

We saw lots of examples of people discussing the ads, the brands, previous experience of the products and the people in the ads. They love to share the humour, often taking 'ownership' of favourite ads and pointing them out whenever they watch with family or friends. It is a powerful characteristic of the medium.

Perhaps that is why the optimum number of people in a room to create engagement is two. It gives people the opportunity to share their experiences of the ads, but not so many as to be distracting. The good news is that the majority of TV viewing (around 70%) in the UK is shared viewing, and it appears to be growing as more viewing comes back to the main set (where most of the new TV technology sits).

The Importance of Emotion in Advertising

When we classified the ads by their primary content factors (affective, cognitive or sensory) it was the affective (i.e. emotional) ads that performed by far the best in terms of eyes on screen or positive engagement behaviour. In particular, ads that elicited nostalgia, humour, excitement or personal identification (via self-referencing) seemed to do well. Interestingly, the second most positive response was seen for highly cognitive ads – the opposite end of the spectrum – suggesting ads should not try to mix styles – it should either be highly emotive or information-packed, but not both. Worryingly, more than 20% of ads could not be classified as strongly cognitive, affective or sensory, which made us wonder why they had been made. Needless to say, these ads performed particularly poorly in our analysis.

When we tested the 20 ads in the quantitative stages of this study, we found that the strongly emotional or affective ads performed far better than the informational ones, and even better against ads that attempted to mix emotion and information too much. These ads seemed to work more intensely at an implicit level, which is not really covered by many research methodologies. Emotional ads seemed to work particularly well against ad liking, which we found to be the most important metric of them all. All of this supports the recent IPA findings, following meta-analysis of more than 800 IPA Effectiveness Awards entries, that showed campaigns that aim to strike an emotional connection with consumers performed much better than those that attempt to impart information about the brand.


Our research partners (ACB) installed video cameras within the TV sets of 22 households, totalling 74 individuals. They represented a range of demographics, household types and technographics. The only way in which our sample differed significantly from the population at large was that half of them owned a PVR, which meant a higher than average number of them also had digital multichannel TV services such as Sky, Virgin or Freeview. This was to 'future-proof' the research against emerging trends in programme access as well as allowing us to thoroughly test the probability that PVR ownership would dramatically impact on live TV spot audiences.

We monitored their viewing for six weeks and took samples of viewing (to commercial breaks only) after two weeks, once their viewing had settled. Altogether, we had four hours of viewing to commercial breaks for each household, giving us a data set of almost 15,000 commercial exposures. Each of these exposures was coded for behaviours as well as commercial content and viewing context factors – a total of 170 different codes for each commercial exposure.

This was followed by a lab-based Memory Study, where we tested the impact of six test ads in different attention contexts – full attention, no attention and two partial attention groups. We attempted to measure implicit as well as explicit memory of ads, as well as test the approach for the larger-scale quantitative survey.

Finally, we conducted a full quantitative survey among 3000 respondents, using an online broadband sample (pre-recruited). This allowed us to measure viewing patterns and contexts, as well as test the impact of a wider range (20) of different ad types to test some of our theories from the earlier stages of the study.

This article featured in Market Leader, Autumn 2007.