The Sell: Burnout Makes for Tune Out

Lately I've been listening to a Dallas radio station via the web from my desk in New York. The music is great, but instead of normal commercial breaks the station repeats the same two promotional spots back-to-back for five minutes. Digital rights management issues keep their regular commercials off the Internet, resulting in ad fatigue. This becomes quite annoying, leading me eventually to change the station. If radio really is theater of the mind, then this is theater of the absurd.

Nothing is worse than ad burnout. While the ad industry looks to the future for emerging trends in media, we should not forget about maximizing our uses of traditional media. Moreover, we should be applying the best practices we learn offline to online media (and vice versa).

Right now, in a cubicle farm somewhere, an assistant media buyer is assigning an entire afternoon's worth of TV inventory to just one product. Some stations will air the same commercial in every ad break. For many hours, loyal viewers will see the exact same commercial. If a station is running an eight-hour program marathon, and there are five commercial pods an hour, the audience will be richly rewarded with 40 repetitions of the same commercial.

I love advertising, but even I could not watch my own commercials 40 times in a row without experiencing ad-induced nausea. The expediency of the allocation process has trumped any sort of reasonable value that media inventory could produce. Computerized allocation has made us too removed from the realities of watching TV. Some repetition is important to ad campaigns, but too much is counterproductive. Gross ratings points, reach and frequency are interrelated concepts, but only to the point that frequency overwhelms extended reach.

Media planning determines reach and frequency based upon the number of impressions (or gross rating points) a media buy will deliver. The difficulty, though, is separating the idea of aggregate ratings with achieved reach. GRPs do not necessarily equate with reach; rather they depend on the nuances of the executed buy. But too often, the GRP goal gets confused with the objective reach/frequency levels.

The young assistant media buyer, alone in his cubicle late at night, probably thinks that assigning one brand to every commercial break is actually a good idea. Not only that, but by combining all of those rating points, he easily meets the seemingly random GRP goal that someone else's plan has told him to assign that brand.

This scenario might seem oversimplified, but it undoubtedly occurs all the time. How else to explain the number of TV programs with commercial breaks that are the equivalent of Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day?" This condition results from a lack of communication not just within the media buying hierarchy but also between buying and planning.

Ad fatigue is similarly problematic online. Too often pre-roll video repeatedly shows the same digitized commercial to the same user. This repetition is a shame - ad management software (such as that offered by DoubleClick or MediaPlex) allows advertisers to limit the number of times they offer an ad to a particular person.

If a person has watched multiple movie trailers on IMDB, there is no need to repeatedly show him the same pre-roll ad. Rather, this inventory offers a perfect opportunity for an advertiser to either show different versions of an ad, different product ads or simply frequency cap their commercials. After the first few views, either the person has gotten the message or has tuned out altogether.

TV networks are not above reproach either. Recently Sci-Fi ran an eight-hour "Battlestar Gallactica" marathon, with the same "Dr. Who" promotion in the "A" position of every break - a blunder tantamount to ad murder. Studies have demonstrated that audiences want to know what is coming up next, but that must be tempered with original thinking and dynamic planning.

Commercial burnout is a waste of ad space. Consumers don't like seeing the same ad in every commercial break. In fact it makes them cringe or, worse, change the channel. Sometimes it encourages them to consciously dislike the product. Different creative executions can alleviate the tedium. In certain cases, sponsorship billboards without the accompanying spot will suffice. Most importantly, we must rethink our stewardship and allocation procedures. To paraphrase Smokey the Bear, only you can prevent Ad Fatigue.

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