You Watch More Ads Than You Think

I recently realized that although I never watch live TV and aggressively fast-forward through commercials, I am still surprisingly familiar with a lot of ads: the Tom Brady Foot Locker ad; The Amy Schumer Old Navy commercial; the Ariana Grande T-Mobile spot.  I know about Flo from Progressive, the GEICO lizard and the Toyotathon. How do I know about them if I never watch commercials?

The media would have us believe that no one watches ads. But obviously someone sees a lot of them.  Nielsen’s C3 rating is a measure of ad viewing — and, even with competition from smartphones and whatnot, those aggregate ratings are remarkably high.  Those of us who “never” watch commercials think it must be all those other dumbbells out there who engage in the retrograde practice of ad watching

Or is it?  How many of us are deluding ourselves?  

Speaking for myself, if pressed, I would concede that, yes, I actually do watch some (OK, maybe more than some) live TV through sports and news shows.  And even if you only watch one football game a week, you are still exposed to a ton of ads.



Scripted programming is also a surprising source of ad viewing, even for those who give their DVR a good workout, because people aren’t as disciplined as they think about fast-forwarding through ads.

Ever since Nielsen began measuring commercial viewing, it has been a rule of thumb that only about half of viewers fast-forward through commercials. But if everyone believes they’re the ones who zip through the ads, there’s going to be a good deal of self-deception.

The reality of those Nielsen numbers is that among DVR users, some skip all ads, some don’t bother to fast-forward at all, and a great many skip some ads but watch others depending on their mood, energy level, or affinity for the ad.

At my house, what usually happens when we’re watching a DVR’d show is that when the commercial pod comes on, I’ll watch the first 15 or 20 seconds in a stupor before my wife yells that we’re watching a commercial. for cripes' sake.  Then I’ll fast-forward, usually stopping halfway through the pod because I think the show is finally coming on, only to discover that what I thought was the resumption of the show was actually another ad.  So after watching another 15 seconds of ads, I’ll continue my fast-forwarding, and land about a minute into the show. Then I’ll have to rewind, arriving this time about a half-minute back into the middle of the commercials. Commercial avoidance is a lot of work.

Am I the only one who thinks the precision of the DVR fast-forward function has degraded over time?  When we had our first DVR, I used to be able to zoom through the commercials and land precisely at the second when the show started up again.  Now I can end up half a minute ahead or half a minute behind the resumption of the show because the technology has become so imprecise.  In other words, I watch a lot more ads than I realize because I usually give up trying to avoid them.

The other reason I watch recorded commercials is that sometimes they are so good I actually want to watch them.  The new Amazon ad about the priest and the imam sending each other knee pads for praying is something I’ll always watch it to the end whenever it’s on.  Same with the iPhone 7 ad with balloons floating throughout the city accompanied by a beautiful cover version of “I Will Follow You.”

In fact, it’s a huge irony that the best TV ads are now being produced by the same high-tech companies (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) that have done so much to undermine the television business model.  They, at least, seem to recognize the power of television advertising.

And speaking of digital media, one place I do not enjoy seeing ads is online.  A two-minute commercial pod during a streaming TV show seems so much longer than a two-minute ad on TV.  When you’re watching an ad on TV, you can get up and walk into the kitchen for a glass of water or go to the bathroom, but when you’re watching an online commercial you feel compelled to sit in front of your PC or to hold your smartphone in your hand doing a slow burn until the show resumes.

In 1984, the most memorable moment during the Democratic primaries occurred when Walter Mondale confronted Gary Hart during a debate and said that his policies reminded him of the woman in the Wendy’s commercial who asked “Where’s the beef?” It was a devastating put-down because Hart’s proposals seemed utopian and lacking specifics.  And it was particularly damaging because everyone understood the reference to the ad.

In 2016, there was no similar advertising reference that any politician could cite to undermine a rival because TV ads no longer offer a common cultural connection.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch a lot of ads.  

In fact, when I’m fast-forwarding through the commercial pod I almost always recognize ads that I’ve already seen dozens of times.  There are more ads than ever before, and even the biggest snob who claims never to watch commercials is kidding himself.

7 comments about "You Watch More Ads Than You Think".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 6, 2016 at 4:17 p.m.

    Gary, you are quite right. However a few points about the measurements of ad viewing. To begin with, DVR dellayed ad deleting is about 50% but DVR viewing is a small part of our total TV consumption. Most of it is still seen on a "live" basis. Also, although Nielsen tallies so-called commercial minute "viewing", which discounts all forms of overt zapping, namely when the commercials are deleted, Nielsen has no idea whether the person its system has identified as a program viewer---based on the panel mamber's claims made when a TV set is turned on or a channel is changed----actually watches the commercials. Commercial viewing is simply assumed to take place---it is not measured. We estimate that Nielsen's commercial minute ratings overstate actual commercial noting by something like 40-45%. Still, as I said, you are correct. "We" see many more commercials than we seem to realize or are willing to admit. Our own estimate---in my new book, "TV Now and Then", is that a typical adult sees all or part of 85-90 commercials per day. If we discount those who are not paying close attention, this figure drops to perhaps, 40-50 TV ads per day; if we consider only those ads that really motivate us to consider a buying decision, the figure is still lower---say about 8-10 ads. Now some might say, that's not so many, after all---but think about it. 40-50 TV ads watched more or less attentively per day---day after day? And 8-10 TV ads that really make us think about taking some sort of action per day---even if we don't follow through? That, is a lot of advertising impact.

  2. John Harpur from Yellow Submarine, December 7, 2016 at 10:28 a.m.

    Ed. The work you do is invaluable. Your still the best.

    Recognizing that Nielsen is not measuring actual in-room, eyes-on viewing,  I was hoping you could clarify how Nielsen  measures commercial breaks for C3 reporting.

     How many seconds of non-fast-forwarded “viewing” is counted as a commercial pod view? Is it not true that Nielsen counts just a few seconds as a view of the whole commercial pod? In which case, a lot of skipped/fast forwarded commercials are counted as “viewed” as in the case of Gary’s opinion piece above?

    Also, it was my understanding that if one pauses the DVR for a period of time for the purpose of skipping commercials such as I do often with a lot of my sports viewing, that this is reported as live viewing. This practice is more common than one might think based on an article and survey reported this week in another media trade.

     The same problem of measurement is exemplified by my every-morning routine. I get up; turn on the TV, but leave to make coffee, check on work emails in my study, and so on and then settle in front of the TV; rewind a half hour or more of programming;  and  watch the local morning news and the Today Show with smart phone in hand and skip/fast forward commercials. This also, of course, would be counted as “live” viewing.

    Gary is correct here in his assumption that through it all, commercials do get through.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 7, 2016 at 10:48 a.m.

    Thanks, John. Regarding exactly how Nielsen tallies its commercial minute ratings, as I'm not a client of Nielsen and this gets very technical, I  can only reply based on what I've heard, plus common sense as to the practical issues involved. For now, I'd rather that someone from Nielsen reply with an "official" explanation---if they are so inclined.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 7, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.

    Why are you assuming all ads are on TV programs ?

  5. Gary Holmes from Gary Holmes Communications LLC replied, December 7, 2016 at 3:05 p.m.

    To clarify how commercials are measured: the C3 rating is a measure of how much times during each program is spent watching commercials, either live or during playback, at the end of three days after the original broadcast.  All the commercial time for each show, including ads, PSA, promos, etc, are set aside and measured separately.  The ratings are like regular TV ratings.  If you watch ten seconds of commercial time the time period gets credited with ten seconds of commercial viewing.  In the end, all the seconds and minutes of commercial viewing are added up and divided by the number of people in the panel to get a rating.

    Please note: Commercials are not rated separately. The C3 rating is an aggregate of all the commercial time in a show. This metric was supposed to be the first step to true commercial ratings but the industry seems to have decided this is close enough. In any event, the point is that the ratings show that people watch a ton of commercials.

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 7, 2016 at 4:19 p.m.

    Gary, the Nielsen commercial minute ratings do not measure whether program viewers watched commercials as that's a virtually impossible feat unless Nielsen installed cameras facing the audience for every set in the home and tallied the findings based on "eyes-on" metrics. Not going to happen. So, while I agree with you that people watch many commercials, Nielsen's ratings are hardly proof of this. One has to go much deeper and make estimates of what probably happens when commercials are on the screen. As it happens, there is plenty of research to guide us----if we take the time to examine it. If we accepted Nielsen's commercial minute ratings as indications of commercial viewing, the average adult's daily dosage equals about one hour of TV ads---about 160 messages of all lengths---and that is simply an impossible statistic to believe. According to the peoplemeter system, which assumes that a claimed program "viewer" is watching all content on his/her screen until the channel is changed---unless the "viewer" indicates that this is no longer the case ( which rarely happens )----the average adult "watches something like 90-95% of the commercials that are allowed to flash across his/her screen. No way I buy that. And just for the record, this is not a rap against Nielsen. Measuring commercial viewing is simply asking too much---all you are getting is the possibility of commercial exposure----hence the high numbers.

  7. John Grono from GAP Research, December 8, 2016 at 1:45 a.m.

    It all depends on how viewing and channels are identified.

    Here in Australia we use audio matching.   A 'recording' of all (linear/time-based) channels in a market is made as a 'reference signal'.   The audio in the home is recorded and sent back and matched against the reference signal.    If/when you get a match you then know the channel.   Anything un-matched goes into the 'all other TV usage' bucket (it could be games, DVDs, personally recorded video, internet streaming onto the TV etc.)

    So if you FFWD through the ad-break when time-shifting via your DVR all those ads count as a zero.   If you mute a program because you answered the phone when you were watching live, the duration you were on the phone counts as a zero (e.g. if it was 60-minute show and the phone call was 15 minutes you would count as 3/4 of a viewer).   If you pause the DVR there is no sound so no viewing at all is recorded.   These are all logical rules.

    While the system does a good job of removing 'true negatives' it doesn't do as good a job at removing 'false positives' such as when you leave the room for a comfort or coffee break and the sound is still up you are registered as a viewer.   I know a statistician should never use a sample of one, but I know my viewing habits would generate more 'true negatives' (and remove them) than 'false positives' and many ethnographic studies support that is quite common.

    But back to Ed's point - what are the definitive answers Nielsen?   I believe you have active/passive metering in the US.   How similar are the US rules to Australia's?

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