Aperture: Ask Why They Zap, Not How

We usually dedicate this column to the topic of aperture moments -- those times and places when consumers are open to receiving a message. Aperture planning (a.k.a. communication planning or relevancy planning) is what we and other leading-edge media agencies are practicing. This month we look at the "dark side" of aperture planning: commercial avoidance.

It is likely that even cave dwellers left the room to avoid hieroglyphic messaging, in a manner not dissimilar to early television viewers of the 1950s and '60s. Commercial avoidance has only risen, it seems, given the rush of technology that makes it easier for people to personalize media content.

While this is happening in all media, broadcast TV continues to be the dominant advertising medium. In our analysis of TV commercial avoidance, we reviewed the entire practice to see what's driving it and how we might proceed to more effective communication.

We started by identifying the reasons people avoid commercials. These fell into four categories: 1) The commercial isn't relevant to them; 2) The creative execution isn't engaging; 3) They've seen the commercial before and reject it; or 4) They are multitasking and are more interested in the other task.

Does technology play a role in commercial avoidance? Sure -- but less than you might think. Let's take zapping, the practice of changing channels when a commercial appears. The enabler is the handheld remote with nearly complete household penetration. A special tabulation of Nielsen data from April 2004 and November/December 2004, using a resolution of 30 seconds, provided new insight into viewing behavior. Overall, the drop from the program rating to the commercial rating was anywhere from 5 to 10 percent. Depending upon demographic, source of programming, and day part, the differences in commercial holding ability varied from a high of 10 to 15 percent for early morning to a low of 2 to 3 percent for daytime and syndication.

And what about the empowerment offered by digital video recorders? According to Nielsen projections, 70 percent of DVR viewing will be "live," not delayed. Arbitron's recent release of its Houston Portable People Meter (PPM) data revealed that 93 percent of viewing on TV sets connected to DVRs in July 2005 was live, with 60 percent of time-shifted programming viewed within the same day and 20 percent the next day. When time-shifted programming is viewed, most or all of the commercials could be skipped, but that isn't happening all the time. With DVR penetration projected to be between 12 and 24 percent by January 2007, commercial avoidance empowered by DVRs might account for the loss of around 2 to 4 percent of an average prime-time network TV program. By then, VOD, broadband video, and addressable TV advertising might also be making a greater impact.

What's the biggest culprit in commercial avoidance today? A compilation of studies analyzed by Ed Papazian, of Papazian Ephron Papazian, indicated that 14 percent of people leave the room during a prime-time commercial break. In the early morning day part, that figure can be as high as 22 percent. And when viewers stay in the room, they are likely to be doing other things. In a recent TargetCast TCM study, most respondents indicated that they do something else while watching television: 54 percent said they read magazines, 52 percent read newspapers, and 42 percent cruise the Internet.

So how do we combat commercial avoidance? Aperture moments realized through communications planning, with a creative twist. Making sure that the right ad is directed to the right person will ensure relevancy. Making sure that ad is placed in the right context will ensure an openness to the message. Making sure that the ad is placed at the right time will ensure that the consumer is ready to receive it instead of zapping it away.

Above all, it's the commercial content that must connect with the viewer to combat avoidance. While new technology has certainly opened up new avenues for avoidance, you don't need new technology to leave the room or read a magazine. People still like, watch, and remember advertising, as long as it's right for them. Don't waste the moment. The aperture is open -- let's make the connection count.

Steve Farella, president-CEO, and Audrey Siegel, executive vice president and director of client services, are cofounders of TargetCast TCM. (

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