What The Hell Is 'Time Spent' With Advertising, Anyway?

Over at MediaPost's Research Intelligencer, Joe Mandese is running a series of columns digging into a couple of questions:

--       How much time are consumers spending with advertising?

--       How much is that time worth?

The quick answers are 1.84 hours daily, and about $3.40 per hour.

Although Joe readily admits that these are "back of the envelope” calculations, regular Mediapost reader and commentator Ed Papazian points out a gaping hole in the logic of these questions: An hour of being exposed to ads does not equal an hour spent with those ads, and it certainly doesn’t mean a whole hour of someone's actually being aware of the ads. 



Ignoring this fundamental glitch is symptomatic of the conceit of the advertising business in general.  They believe there is a value exchange possible, where paying consumers to watch advertising is related to the effectiveness of that advertising.

The oversimplification required to rationalize this exchange is staggering. It essentially ignores the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. It assumes that audience attention is a simple door that can be opened only if the price is right.

It just isn’t that simple.

Let’s go back to the concept of time spent with media. There are many studies done that quantify this. But the simple truth is that media is too big a catchall category to make this quantification meaningful. We’re not even attempting to compare apples and oranges. We’re comparing an apple, a jigsaw and a meteor. The cognitive variations alone in how we consume media are immense.

And while I’m on a rant, let’s nuke the term “consumption” altogether, shall we? It’s probably the most misleading word ever coined to define our relationship with media.

We don’t consume media any more than we consume our physical environment. It is an informational context within which we function. We interact with aspects of it, with varying degrees of intention. Trying to measure all these interactions with a single yardstick is the same as trying to measure our physical interactions with water, oxygen, gravity and an apple tree by the same criterion.

Even trying to dig into this question has a major methodological flaw: We almost never think about advertising. It is usually forced on our consciousness. So to use a research tools like a survey, requiring respondents to actively explore their subconscious relationship with advertising, is like using a banana to drive a nail. It’s the wrong tool for the job.  It’s the same as me asking you how much you would pay per hour to have access to gravity.

This current fervor all comes from a prediction from Publicis Groupe Chief Growth Officer Rishad Tobaccowala that the supply of consumer attention would erode by 20% to 30% in the next five years.  By putting a number on attention, Tobaccowala led up to a mistaken belief that attention could be managed by the industry.

The attention of your audience isn’t slipping away because advertising and media buying was mismanaged. It’s slipping away because your audience now has choices, and some of those choices don’t include advertising. Let’s just admit the obvious. People don’t want advertising. We only put up with advertising when we have no choice.

“But wait,” the ad industry is quick to protest, “In surveys people say they are willing to have ads in return for free access to media. In fact, almost 80% of respondents in a recent survey said that they prefer the ad-supported model!”

Again, we have the methodological fly in the ointment. We’re asking people to stop and think about something they never stop and think about. You’re not going to get the right answer.

A better approach would be to think about what happens when you go to a news site with your ad blocker on. “Hey,” the pop-up says, “We notice you’re using an ad blocker.” If you have the option of turning the ad blocker off to see the article or just clicking a link that lets you see it anyway, which are you going to choose?

That’s what I thought. And you’re probably in the ad business. It pays your mortgage.

Look, I get that the ad business is in crisis. And I also understand why the industry is motivated to find an answer. But the complexity of the issue in front of us is staggering, and no one is well-served by oversimplifying it down to putting a price tag on our attention.

We have to understand that we’re in an industry where, given the choice, people would rather not have anything to do with us.  Unless we do that, we’ll just be making the same mistakes over and over again.

14 comments about "What The Hell Is 'Time Spent' With Advertising, Anyway?".
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  1. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, April 3, 2018 at 4:56 p.m.

    Content does not come free. Shelley Palmer once told an audience that you pay, or I pay, or somebody else pays. Of course, sometimes the government pays. Everybody wants to get content for free and with no ads. Nobody can make a living creating content in a world like that. So we either pay a subscription fee, or watch ads (or a mixture of the two), or some steal the content.  It takes money to make content. It has to be paid for. Don’t those who do that deserve to make a living?

  2. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting replied, April 3, 2018 at 5:01 p.m.

    Jack...sure..content deserves to be paid for. I'm not arguing that. What I'm arguing against is the oversimplification of the answers to that problem.

  3. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, April 3, 2018 at 5:13 p.m.

    Time spent is one of three key fundamentals. How many, how often, how long,  lays out the way to look at the basics. Of course that is too simple.  But we still aren’t getting these simple simple things right. If we did, we could then go further down the pipe. Measures of exposure are fundamental to any media plan. They are not simple. Measuring context, attention, business outcomes etc. should follow. They don’t replace business outcomes. But we are still struggling to get exposure right and we’ve been trying for at least 60 years. Crazy, no?

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 3, 2018 at 8:25 p.m.

    Jack, the main reason why we are still struggling regarding the important issues of attentiveness and ad exposure is the fact that the media ad sellers provide most of the funding for the audience surveys and they---in TV especially, but also in radio---are deathly afraid of the subject---and with good reason. Sadly,despite what they say, advertisers don't really seem to care---and certainly, they are not going to spend any meaningful sums to find out so it's up to the agencies. In my day, agency media research heads cooperated on subjects such as turning to viewer data instead of set usage for TV, using demographics and product use/purchase information to profime media audiences, etc. Now, however, the various media buying conglomerates are mainly focused on being competitive and they have long since abandoned the research policing role that the original agencies---BBDO, Y&R, J Walter Thompson, B&B, Ogilvy, Grey, Bates,  etc. were noted for.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, April 4, 2018 at 1:22 p.m.

    OK, how does the government get money ? Please wake up.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 4, 2018 at 1:25 p.m.

    Anybody think advertising is going to stop when it admitted that these measurements are figments of the imagination ? Listen to Gord. Remember when MP had a column repeating absurd statements made of word salads by marketers to win $ ?

  7. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, April 4, 2018 at 1:32 p.m.

    We are also still struggling with measurement of time spent too!  I agree that attentiveness and ad exposure also deserve attention, but measures of “opportunity to see” which should be easier, are still challenged after 60 years of progress!

  8. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 4, 2018 at 7:09 p.m.

    Jack, my basic point is that time spent, as per this article, includes commercials and other  types of promos and PSAs as well as program content. Of course, our "audience measurements have issues about measuring digital add-ons, out-of-home for TV, getting a handle on "long tail" channels, measuring SVDO/OTT, etc. but even when it comes to traditional "linear TV" in-home consumption, we are making assumptions that inflate time spent stats for all types of content---program and commercials because we do not address the absentee viewer factor and many situations when "audiences" are not paying any attention at all. Accordingly, I connect the two--- proper audience measurement requires a valid measure of attentiveness rather than treating them as separate issues.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 4, 2018 at 7:16 p.m.

    Paula, I don't think that we should dismiss our current audience surveys as completely innaccurate as that is not the case. The real problem is that we have become so reliant on  "audience" data that we keep trying to cut it finer and finer---down to the second by second level and for commercials as well as program content----when the methodology was never meant to provide definitive findings on such a granular basis. In short, we are asking much too much of the Nielsens of the world, then criticizing them for not being able to give us reliable readings of every last centimeter of audience, to say nothing of how it is defined. It's time we accepted some responsibility for making decisions and use the ratings as a guide---not the perfect answer to every media buying question.

  10. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, April 4, 2018 at 9:47 p.m.

    Until you know if someone is present when a message is delivered it doesn’t make sense to me to measure attention. More importantly, attention is to some degree the responsibility of the ad, not the channel or medium. Some ads hold attention, others do not. 

  11. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 5, 2018 at 9:03 a.m.

    But Jack, in the case of TV we don't know in anyone is present----the rating system merely assumes that this is the case unless notified by the panel member program "viewer" otherwise---which just about never happens. Yet camera and body  ( heat ) sensor studies tell us that 10-20% of the time the "viewer" is not present--even though counted as "watching". Moreover, the "absentee viewing" ratio is considerably higher when commercials are on.

    I do agree, however, that it is not feasible under the current "audience" measuring system to pose a strict definition of attentiveness upon Nielsen's panel members as this does vary by type of content and other factors and it would confuse the panel members to the point where we would prpobably get very bad data. On the other hand, sensor technology of the kind now being used by TVision, which can tell if a person is in the room and has his/her eyes on the screen second by second, has great potential for resolving this flaw in the peoplemeter concept.

  12. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, April 5, 2018 at 10:58 a.m.

    Advertisers and agencies that believe this is important enough have the clout to make this happen. Media owners will follow, as they have before. 

  13. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, April 5, 2018 at 2:23 p.m.

    True. When the only thing a dog does is chase its tail, what does it accomplish ?

  14. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 5, 2018 at 2:34 p.m.

    Either all facets are going to live with estimates or you will be strapping people into place with wires with mind reading equipment. It's like all these "marketing graduates" taught by people who do nothing but teach are marching to Happy the Clown's Marching Sticks from marketing companies trying to prove their worth by charging clients humongous sums of money to justify absurd ad rates from conglomerates. 

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