Why Does The ARF Still Need To Prove The Sky Is Blue?

I was only able to briefly attend the recent ARF Re!Think 2016 Conference, and I feel at once like I missed a lot, yet missed nothing.

I am always inspired by listening to brilliant thinkers like Dave Poltrack and Leslie Wood, colleagues whom I’ve known for many years.  They, and several others at ARF conferences, are often on the cutting edge of new and innovative research.

Nevertheless, too many studies just seem to be repackaging what we’ve seen over and over again throughout the years.  People need to understand that there is a difference between “groundbreaking” and “self-evident.”

In 2016, is a study that concludes advertising works really groundbreaking?

  • Spending across multiple platforms delivers greater ROI than investing in single platforms. Don’t we hear this every time a new major advertising medium emerges?  It is, of course, true, but hardly a new idea and hardly groundbreaking.
  • If you spend less on TV advertising your sales will go down.  It scares me that so many actually think this is groundbreaking research. 
  • “Silo investing” too heavily in some digital formats can have diminishing returns.  Really? Did anyone not already know this?
  • Customize your creative to the uniqueness of each platform.  Again, anyone who took an advertising course in school should know this.



Those of us who have been in the industry long enough remember ARF presentations saying virtually the same things about cable they are saying about digital today.

Do we really still need to spend so much time and money to arrive at these rather banal conclusions?  All the above points should be part of an ARF credo that holds these truths to be self-evident.

There have basically been four elements to “groundbreaking” industry research studies during my 30 years in the business:  Advertising works; advertisers need to spend more, not less, particularly on television, regardless of what is going on with the economy; whenever a new ad platform emerges, you need to add it to the mix, rather than shift money from one platform to another, and audience measurement continues to lag behind and needs to improve to cover all available platforms and media users.

Here’s are two potentially real groundbreaking studies I would like to see:

  • My wife and I were watching TV the other night.  When I got up and went into my 16-year-old son’s room, he was lying on his bed, watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament on his laptop, playing a videogame on his Playstation, and listening to music on his smartphone. Is he going to be like previous generations?  When he graduates college and gets a job, is he still going to be doing what he is doing now?  Or, when he is in his own home, and no longer relegated to his own space in the bedroom, will the 50+inch TV be his primary screen?
  • Rather than researching the impact reduced ad spending has on sales, the real problem is much more likely commercial avoidance. While there is no question that traditional TV viewing on a television set is declining, particularly among millennials, there is no question that it remains by far the biggest chunk of the viewing pie among every age group.
But more than half of all viewing to original scripted series on broadcast and cable is via DVR. The industry continues to spend billions of dollars on television advertising using C3 ratings – despite too many not understanding what it does and does not measure.

What happens to sales if you advertise on shows that have more than 90% of their audience live, compared to the same spend and ratings points on shows where less than half of their viewers are live?

There are many other studies I’d like to see, but there is one thing I know.  You don’t need to keep proving the sky is blue.
9 comments about "Why Does The ARF Still Need To Prove The Sky Is Blue?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 7, 2016 at 11:06 a.m.

    Steve, I would like to believe that there is more to the ARF study than has been released or headlined recently, but I could be wrong. In any event, I have seen and participated in numerous well intentioned attempts to get into the workings of advertising and how it motivates consumers that fell by the wayside when the results came in and most of the findings that would really be "new" proved inconclusive. Often, this is because the researchers bit off much more than their models chould chew, or were lacking key datasets that might have shed more light on otherwise cloudy issues. A case in point is the so-called "documentation" for both the "effective frequency" and, its successor, the "recency" theories. When one dug into the cited research---which few bothered to do---the "evidence" was open to many interpretations and important information was lacking.

    Perhaps, as more findings are released the ARF study will have more "meat" to it---I hope that's the case.

  2. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, April 7, 2016 at 2:47 p.m.

    Simply brilliant, once again.  New data confirms what prior research has discovered. What don't we know?

  3. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, April 7, 2016 at 4:51 p.m.

    I have become very turned off by the ARF's drive to hype everything they do - and to jump on the bandwagon of shiny baubles. So i concur that the research you describe isn't entirely ground breaking. Yet as a follower of their Twitter feed, the idea that TV still exists appears to be actually groundbreaking within the organization.

    From watching their releases and hype, my sense is that the organization has lost its way...that in its search for revenues to support operations its found it must embrace shiny baubles - yet in doing so it violates the inherent trustworthiness it needs in order to be a viable operation.

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, April 7, 2016 at 4:56 p.m.

    I suppose they need to prove "the sky is blue" because their hype machine keeps putting out the idea "the sky is multi-colored".

    Want to challenge the overall embrace of "campaigns are more effective with multiple media channels". Truth is...sometimes. If you have enough budget, then spreading it is smart and likely creates higher impact by extending the reach. BUT, we work with innovations and new products. Quite often, budgets are low. And, in that case, spreading the money is a serious problem because focus is exceptionally important.

    I wish the ARF would get more sophisticated. Let's look at WHEN persausive advertising is most effective rather than broad proclamations of whether it is/isn't effective. Let's look at WHEN budgets should be spread - under what conditions. Let's look at ROI horizon - when do you need to see your money back and how does that impact your advertising choices. 

    It's sad to me that the really critical issues lie uninvestigated - across our industry. We continue to be told (despite intense hype about strategy) that there's a monolithic "one way" to do it best. There isn't and never will be. That means developing a more subtle understanding would help everyone succeed.

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 7, 2016 at 5:50 p.m.

    In defense of the ARF, it is also likely thay they hoped to explore more interesting and relatively "new" factors that govern how consumers respond to ad campaigns, media mixes, media weight, etc. but didn't uncover anything definitive---hence the "sky is blue" pronouncements.I've been involved in other investigations of this type utilizing scanner panel data correlated with TV "viewing" behavior" which were equally inconclusive when sliced and diced in too granular a fashion. Perhaps the vagaries of so many divergent products, ad campaigns, spending levels, and many other factors makes "rule of thumb" conclusions very hard to document. There are simply too many variables, interactions and exceptions.

  6. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, April 7, 2016 at 10:06 p.m.

    Dear Steve,


    Recognizing I've been quiet on the MediaPost Commentary front for some time, 

    I thought I'd resume with a critical, constructive observation ... not for you,

    but for that which is called the advertising research profession today.


    Like some, I long for the good old days when life seemed simpler, 

    and the marketing process seemed easier to comprehend.


    Today, things are not just more complicated, but also messier.  

    But not because life itself is a messy affair,

    but because those who should know better have become sloppy 

    in their thinking and less disciplined in their pursuit of the knowledge.


    And the new generation of media researchers seem to discover the nature of things 

    through a mixture of improvisation and a slavery to mysterious models 

    that are incomprehensible to most practitioners because they are are impenetrable.


    So, where does that leave us?  

    If you are correct, Steve, it leaves us struggling to hold onto our jobs

    by proving what we think everyone can see:  

    the the sun is yellow and the sky is blue.

    Are these not the obvious truths that give rise to the imperative questions.


    Alas, they are not.  In reality, the sky is not blue and the sun is not yellow.

    Checkout some physics, as opposed to more advertising research: .


    I don't know where this leaves the ARF.  

    Clearly, however, "research" needs to stop proving things that are not true.

    We need to frame our core questions and investigations differently.

    I'd recommend a better application of the scientific method, 

    but what's the point these days.  To most, it is but a quaint atavism.


    In the end, though, there is more wisdom in a question well-framed, 

    than in any and all research answers to it.


    Onwards & upwards!


    Best regards,


    [Nicholas P. Schiavone]


  7. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 8, 2016 at 10:14 a.m.

    Welcome back, Nick.

  8. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, April 8, 2016 at 1:55 p.m.

    Hi Nick - I feel honored that my article drew you back in.

  9. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC replied, April 8, 2016 at 4:45 p.m.

    Good points Ed. 

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