Safe at Any Speed

Why DVRs haven't been a death knell for TV commercials


I'd like to begin this article with a little experiment and I need your help to complete it. All you need to do is read a short sentence. But you will need to read it six-times faster than you normally do. And you will need to read at that pace from the moment the sentence begins to the period that punctuates its end. Are you ready? Good, here it is:

This sentence will teach you something about your brain's ability to remember things.

Done? Of course, I have no idea if you actually read that sentence at six-times-normal speed. In fact, you probably didn't, and the mere fact that I asked you to rush through it probably means you actually dwelled on it longer than you normally would have. That's just the way our brains work. But if you had read it at an accelerated speed, there's a good chance that you would have remembered the substance of it nearly as well. That's another way our brains work, according to scientists who have been conducting some interesting experiments about fast-forwarding of TV commercials. Their findings go a long way toward explaining why predictions that digital video recorders would obliterate the effectiveness of TV commercials haven't exactly proven to be the case.

It's not that people don't fast-forward through commercials on their DVRs. They do at least half the time, according to industry research. It's just that the act of fast-forwarding doesn't mean TV viewers are actually avoiding commercials, and in some ways, may be paying more focused attention to them - if only to know precisely where they end and their TV shows begin again.

What you just did in the experiment that began this article and what most fast-forwarding TV viewers are doing, neuroscientists call being in a "hyper-alert" state. It means that the fact that you are focused on getting through something at hyper speed and are focused on when it ends, means you are actually paying pretty close attention to it. "If you think about it, it makes sense, because most people don't want to miss their favorite shows," says Devra Jacobs, a neuroscientist with Innerscope Research, who has worked on a series of research studies utilizing biometric measurement technologies that have revealed the hyper-alert phenomenon. Jacobs says it makes sense, because most consumers have grown fairly adept at controlling the timing of their remote controls and can stop fast-forwarding precisely when the commercial break ends and their shows begin again. But to do that, they need to pay close attention to the commercials they are fast-forwarding through, even if they're not conscious of doing it.

The research, including an important benchmark study done for NBC and a series of studies for TiVo, didn't necessarily find that viewers were able to process TV commercials as well when they were fast-forwarding through them, just that they were actually paying attention to them.

Jacobs says a variety of factors influence the effectiveness of a commercial to communicate while someone is fast-forwarding through it, especially whether that viewer had seen the spot previously and could draw upon memories they already had stored in their brain (see story on page 44).

"If people had seen the advertising before, they were more likely to recall it when they were in this hyper-engagement mode," Jacobs notes, adding that it is much more difficult for new ads to register as well, because they are being processed by the brain at six times their normal speed and with no audio content that might be integral to the commercial's message.

But Jacobs says it's not as if there is no effect, even for ads that had never been seen before by fast-forwarding viewers. The reason, she says, is that fast-forwarding creates a more concentrated form of engagement but for a much shorter period of time.

"It's certainly not being erased from their minds just because they are fast-forwarding," she says, adding that other factors about the commercial and the programming surrounding it can influence the ability of an ad to communicate while being fast-forwarded. As effective as fast-forwarded spots may be, Jacobs says much of her work with TiVo has focused on researching what circumstances will most likely lead a viewer to fast-forward through a spot or not. Overall, she says, viewers are 25 percent more likely to fast-forward through ads with low levels of engagement versus spots that had high levels of emotional engagement. A big determinant, she says, is where the spot appears in a commercial break and how engaging the first few seconds of the commercial are when someone begins fast-forwarding it. "From a brain perspective, the more time you keep a viewer engaged, the greater the chance you have of making an impression," Jacobs explains.

The findings are noteworthy, because they help explain why DVRs haven't had the negative impact on the TV advertising marketplace that pundits had originally predicted. That perception most likely began with writer Michael Lewis' New York Times Magazine cover story, "Boom Box," which served as a rallying cry for Madison Avenue, but now looks alarmist in retrospect.

"The worst news is that no one watches commercials anymore," Lewis wrote in 2000, citing early research that "88 percent - 88 percent! - of the advertisements in the programs seen by viewers on their black boxes went unwatched.

"If no one watches commercials, then there is no commercial television," he concluded.

Ten years later, advertisers continue to spend more on television than any other medium. In fact, TV advertising budgets are actually expanding faster than any other major medium, including the Internet, largely because TV advertising continues to work. The fast-forwarding research helps explain why it continues to, but the reality is that technology isn't the only factor determining whether people watch commercials or not; people also are. Long before they had technology to fast-forward through TV commercials they had other ways of avoiding them when they didn't want to watch them, including changing the channel, turning off the TV, or getting up and leaving the room.

3 comments about "Safe at Any Speed".
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  1. Gordon Plutsky from 21 Advisors, April 14, 2011 at 4:23 p.m.

    Very interesting piece. I FF through almost all commercials and you do need to concentrate to do it correctly. I don't know how much value advertisers are getting from those ads whipping by. I have been surprised how much advertising is still being done on TV. Some of it is just inertia of people doing what they have always done. There is also a glamor value to advertising on TV that can't be discounted.

  2. David Lozovsky from Walk Light Media, May 5, 2011 at 11:08 a.m.

    Joe great piece, I totally agree with ad recall even at the accelerated speed, sometimes when I am ff'n commercials I feel like James McAvoy in "Wanted" and am in a highly alert state.

    That being said, do advertisers deal with the skip button, as a FIOS customer I can skip 30 seconds at a clip forward and back(i can adjust back to as little as 10 seconds) so once it is commercial time, I hit skip 3-5 times, check where i am at and keep going till i hit show and skip back till i hit the last commercial before, et voila limited commercial viewing.

    I usually only catch a little of the first and last commercial, perhaps there should be big premiums in place to be the first/last commercial, maybe they are heading that way.


  3. Mary Beth Garber from Katz Media Group, June 2, 2011 at 12:41 p.m.

    Joe, I concur, great piece, great issue. But like David, I (and most of my neighbors) have FiOS, and that skip button gets a lot of use. You can't interact with an ad you don't see. But first in the cluster or last ad or promo in the set are likely to get seen, as well as the millisecond spent on an in-between ad once the skip ends and before the next skip begins. Anything that is emotionally grabbing or works off the stored memories you reference will usually earn full viewing. It does make an advertiser's job more complicated.

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