Commercial Confusion Across Demos, 21% Always Stumped


Marketers may have bigger issues than TV viewers who fast-forward through commercials. Many viewers can be outright confused over their ad messages.

An Adweek/Harris Poll says three-quarters of Americans have found a commercial on TV confusing. On a more consistent basis, 21% often find commercials on television lack clarity.

The good news for marketing creatives is that a little more than half -- 55% -- say commercials generally are not confusing. A smaller group -- 14% -- say they never find commercials confusing.

Also positive overall, 90% of viewers say they watch commercials. Fourteen percent say they never watch commercials. (The poll says some of its numbers don't add up to 100%, due to mathematical rounding of data.)

Commenting on the survey, Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate media director of Horizon Media, notes: "Perhaps it has to do with either the amount of ad clutter now on television or the fact that ads are becoming too creative. [Marketers] hope the viewers will not surf when watching live or zap when watching on a time-shifted basis."



For years, ad comprehension and viewing have been a consistent problem for marketers, say industry executives. Commercials may have terrific-looking creative. But does it sell product? The answer is -- as it has been for years -- sometimes.

Confusing commercials seem to run high among older TV viewers -- 55 plus. The poll said about 30% of these viewers can be found scratching their heads after looking at TV messages from marketers.

Less confused are slightly younger viewers -- 45- to-54-year-olds -- at only 17%. Viewers 18-34 are at about the same rate, 18%. The lowest numbers belong to 35- to-44-year-olds at 13%.

7 comments about "Commercial Confusion Across Demos, 21% Always Stumped".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, September 27, 2010 at 8:36 a.m.

    This is not at all surprising. We've done a fair share of focus groups on advertising and on-air promo campaigns. You play the spots and the discussion usually includes a fair share of "I didn't get the point" statements. Over the years, more than a few creatives sitting behind the glass express "shock and awe" that their message wasn't clear! Here's a hint. Test your creative before, not after, rolling it out for media insertion. It doesn't always guarantee super results but the results are likely to be better than just winging it without pre-testing. If you are going to spend $100k to produce the spots and millions to air it, dropping $20k or so on pre-testing seems like a reasonable insurance policy premium.

  2. Greg Longmuir from Sales, Marketing Online and Reputation Management Executive, September 27, 2010 at 2:21 p.m.

    I am not sure that I buy the 90% watch commercials thing, If however a Geico commercial is the lead, then I think that number for that particular commercial is correct. I cannot believe that anyone would sit through the pain of 9 commercials when so many have DVR.

    I do agree that ads are confusing, at least many. I myself say What the Heck was that about and wonder what idiot in advertising approved it!
    The thing that hurts the most is when I see a commercial and still cannot understand what product it was for or who the retailer or company was.
    Here is a tip, if you don't know about marketing, and you have to make a decision anyway? Make sure the brand name is loud and clear! At least accomplish one of the goals.

    Greg Longmuir

  3. Brian Philo from XOS Digital, September 27, 2010 at 5:26 p.m.

    I think the 90% number is so off the mark but whatever Neilsen publishes becomes gospel at most agencies. And what the heck agencies have a lot to lose if clients decide these pricing productions are not being viewed.

  4. Eugene Davis from SeeSaw Networks, September 27, 2010 at 5:42 p.m.

    Just a clarification/slight correction - as I read the Harris Poll results found at, it is 89 percent that watch commercials and 11 percent that do not (as opposed to 90 percent and 14 percent). That makes me feel better about any potential "rounding" problems in the results.

  5. Bob Killian from Killian Branding, September 27, 2010 at 5:44 p.m.

    Roughly the number who read horoscopes, who believe the President is a Muslim, or that flying saucers have landed.

  6. Greg Longmuir from Sales, Marketing Online and Reputation Management Executive, September 28, 2010 at 12:16 p.m.

    I find Neilsen only partly accurate, I would love to see the data from sources like Dish network who tracks DVR viewing and probably has better data. I simply do not buy that many people watch all commercials. They get up and move about until the show starts.

  7. Gerald Troutman from Triamond Media, September 28, 2010 at 8:39 p.m.

    From the client to the media buyer, for at least 99% of all the ads I see it's obvious no one involved in content development looked at the product and the ad as would a consumer. Every touch point on the push side has her own agenda and it's rare that an ad emerges out the other side of the process in a manner that touches the consumer in any way other than 'Ugh! Fast forward'. Clients sell themselves too often and agencies enable them way too often.

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