Addicted to Media

What if media were an addiction? And if they are, does that make media planners and buyers their biggest addicts? When those questions were first posed to MEDIA magazine about a month ago, we thought they were outlandish, but after we thought about it, they didn't seem like such far-fetched notions. While media aren't necessarily addictive in the way that controlled substances are, prolonged exposure to some media can produce the same kind of emotional, psychological, and even chemical responses that narcotics can. People use media to unwind and "veg out." They use them as a diversion from their everyday lives. And when consumed in extreme quantities, media can even lull individuals into a false sense of reality or trigger drug-like rushes or highs. If you doubt this, talk to any 18-year-old gamer after a multi-hour session with Halo, Final Fantasy, or Grand Theft Auto.

Still not sure? Consider the very language of media planning. What's the term that's become most commonly used to describe a media consumer? We call them users, the same word used to describe drug addicts.

OK, so few sober minds would actually equate media usage with drug addiction, but the reality is that media usage can often mirror behavioral addictions such as eating or sexual disorders that can be almost as destructive, if not equally so, and can take over a user's life and displace other important elements.

Bob Papper has witnessed this firsthand. Papper, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University, is co-author of what many believe to be the most empirical study ever done of media consumption. His so-called Middletown study, which followed 101 consumers through their entire day and observed their media consumption patterns, goes a long way toward supporting the notion that media have become an addiction. For one thing, the study proved that people consume far more media than most accepted industry research has indicated. For another, it shows that media consumption patterns are growing exponentially with the advent of new media technologies, creating multiplier effects of simultaneous media usage that are crowding out other aspects of American lifestyles.

At its most extreme, Papper says, media addiction is no different than other behavioral addictions. "People lose control. It's like an eating disorder - most people can say no, but some people can't seem to stop," he says, citing an example of a man in the Middletown study who consumes 17 hours of media a day. "He was basically in front of a TV, newspaper, or radio all day long, from the moment he woke to the moment he went to sleep."

While this might seem like extremely compulsive behavior, Papper says the trend line indicates it's increasingly the norm. Media simply are occupying more of our lives, and with each new breakthrough in media technology, we're consuming more of them. Even technologies that would seem to give consumers more control over the media they consume appear to increase the amount of media they use, not decrease it. That's the case with digital video recorders (DVRs), which have been shown to make people watch more TV, ostensibly because it becomes a more satisfying experience when you can watch what you want, when you want. The same is true of online access: Broadband and Wi-Fi increase online media consumption patterns, not the opposite.

But while society at large appears to be moving toward what might well be described as media addiction, we were still unsure about the second part of the thesis that was initially brought to us by Jeff Einstein, a onetime Silicon Alley pioneer who will soon pen a new weekly MediaPost column aimed at media industry professionals that addresses the implications of media addiction. "Media planners and buyers are the biggest junkies," says Einstein. When asked how he knew that, he said that it "just makes sense" given what they do for a living.

That's when we began to wonder whether media addiction truly is an occupational hazard for media planners and buyers. It's hard to know, because from what we can tell, there's never been an extensive study on the media consumption habits of media planners and buyers. Not recently, anyway, and certainly not one that's been made public. So we did what we do whenever these types of questions come up, and turned to media planners and buyers themselves for the answer, fielding what may be the first in-depth study on the media technology ownership and media consumption patterns of media agency executives. To give those results context, we conducted a simultaneous study of the same set of questions among a corresponding group of consumers. Both studies were fielded via self-administered questionnaires online in April by InsightExpress, which tabulated the results.

What we found is that media buyers and planners do indeed feel like they're growing addicted to media, which experts say is a startling admission from a professional group charged with managing media commerce - though their actual media consumption patterns are not very different than those of consumers. At least not overall, that is.

Media agency executives reported spending an average of 7.38 hours daily with media during the average weekday, which was actually a tad less than the 7.47 hours reported by consumers. Where the big differences occurred was in the amount of time media planners and buyers spend with specific media versus consumers' time allocations. Consumers reported spending proportionately more time with TV, radio, and newspapers (both at home and at work) than agency media executives. But the agency executives reported significantly higher usage levels with online media and magazines.

Papper says it is interesting that the overall level of reported usage was comparable between consumers and members of the media buying trade, but he says both groups likely significantly underestimated the amount of time they actually spend with media.

In the Ball State study, for example, consumers reported spending only 4.8 hours each day with media when they participated in telephone surveys, but were directly observed to be spending about 11 hours each day with media. "There's no reason why media planners should be any different. They're human beings too," says Papper.

A more startling finding to come out of the MediaPost survey was the percentage of people - media professionals and consumers alike - who feel they are growing more "dependent" on media. Nearly two thirds (61 percent) of media planners/buyers and 47 percent of consumers cited such dependencies.

Nearly a third (29 percent) of the media professionals said they felt "overwhelmed" by media, while 24 percent said media was "crowding out" other important things in their lives, including family (20 percent), friends (22 percent), work (9 percent), recreation (34 percent), and even sleep (36 percent). The biggest casualty, cited by 46 percent of planners/buyers, was "quiet time."

Clearly, media pros and consumers alike are feeling stressed about the amount of media they consume, but some insiders don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

"Everybody is overwhelmed by media, but in a way, it's a good sign that the people who are making the decisions are just as overwhelmed as the people who we are trying to reach. It means we can relate to them. We're not losing touch," says Charlie Rutman, president of Carat USA.

"It's a problem," says Jane Lacher, vice president-director of research and consumer context planning at MediaVest. "But it's what I call a high-class problem. We have so much access to so many wonderful things that we tend to denigrate them."

While part of the denigration of media may be deserved, Lacher points out that it also has a lot of socially positive effects that actually create new bonds and foster communication between people.

"It's not all a negative. There's the positive aspect too," she says, citing research MediaVest conducted that found college kids were creating "huge parties" to get together and watch the cult Food Network TV show "Iron Chef."

"There was this group of young people who were using it as an opportunity to get together and socialize," she notes.

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