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I think most advertising sucks.  And that goes double for most television advertising.  That was a big motivation for me getting a TiVo (I actually now have two, one for each of the televisions in my house).  And its provides a basis for a lot of my thinking and writing about why and how organizations continue to struggle when trying to communicate in today's rapidly changing, highly connected, technology and internet-centric world.

So, I was particularly interested to find a little nugget in the Ideas section of Sunday's Boston Globe about how commercials actually improve television.   What a breakthrough!

Here is the blurb from the Globe.

"WITH THE ADOPTION of digital video recorders, fewer people watch commercials on TV anymore. After all, it's not like anyone wants to watch commercials (except during the Super Bowl, maybe). However, new research says that you may be missing out. When college students were asked to watch an episode of "Taxi," they enjoyed the version with commercials more than the version without commercials. The same thing happened when watching a nature show, such that students who watched the version with commercials were more willing to donate to wildlife preservation. The effect arises because the novelty of an experience can wear off, and a break can reset one's attention. There are a couple caveats to the effect, though: It doesn't apply to older people (with their longer attention spans), or to exciting shows. Of course, if younger people watch only exciting shows, then advertisers may be out of luck anyway."

The research is from a study entitled "Enhancing the Television Viewing Experience Through Commercial Interruptions" that will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research. It was authored by Leif D. Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego.  Tom Meyvis, an associate professor of marketing and Jeff Galak, a doctoral candidate at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University also contributed.  Here is their summary:

"Consumers prefer to watch television programs without commercials. Yet, in spite of most consumers’ extensive experience with watching television, we propose that commercial interruptions can actually improve the television‐viewing experience. Although consumers do not foresee it, their enjoyment diminishes over time. Commercial interruptions can disrupt this adaptation process and restore the intensity of consumers’ enjoyment. Six studies demonstrate that, although people preferred to avoid commercial interruptions, these interruptions actually made programs more enjoyable (study 1), regardless of the quality of the commercial (study 2), even when controlling for the mere presence of the ads (study 3), and regardless of the nature of the interruption (study 4). However, this effect was eliminated for people who are less likely to adapt (study 5) and for programs that do not lead to adaptation (study 6), confirming the disruption of adaptation account and identifying crucial boundaries of the effect."

I am not quite sure what to make of this research — or at least I am not sure what it means should change to improve the quality of impact of advertising (assuming you agree that advertising sucks).  If anything, it seems like an argument for putting more commercials breaks into TV shows, to help make the TV show experience stronger.  That would be a tragedy on so many levels.

I'll have to read the study in full to get more details, its not really fair to make assumptions based on the two blurbs I have read.  But of course that won't stop me.  What I know, from experience, is that advertising doesn't work as well as it once did, or maybe doesn't work at all now (for its intended purpose - to get people to buy things) because of the changes in how we get and share information.  When we are sitting down to watch TV the last thing that is on our mind, typically, is buying something.  The likelihood that I would want to get off my couch to go buy something I saw advertised is pretty low (or as a high school teach of mine used to say "Its easier to sit on the couch than go running"). And there is no way I will stop whatever I am doing to respond to an advertisement that I don't even think is interesting, or for a product that I don't need or want.

Historically, the shows were created so that advertisers would have something to attract viewers to their ads.  Of course, people watch television because of the quality of the content on the shows themselves.  So, the thought of using ads to enhance the viewing experience of the shows seems almost comical.

Before I forget, two thoughts on the study itself.

1) If it doesn't apply to older people (with their longer attention spans), to whom does it apply?  The top audience that television advertisers (and television producers) try to reach during prime time, especially, are 18-34 year olds.  I am within this target group and though I certainly have attention span issues, I am more than capable of watching a 'good' television show without needing a two-minute interruption.  In fact, the quality of the shows that I watch (even the quasi-reality shows on MTV, yes I admit I am a fan of the Hills) is usually superior to the quality of the ads — all the more reason why I wouldn't take my attention away from the show to internalize the message of a commercial. And if the ads are designed to target kids, with short attention spans, do the advertisers even care if it enhances their television watching experience?  I would think advertisers would want the kids to run to their mommy or daddy and ask them to buy the sugary cereal or fancy new toy, not keep watching till the end of an episode (when their short attention span would have moved them on to other things anyway).

2) Why does it work for everything but exciting shows?  Again, there may be more in the research that explains this better, but the concept of a show having to be 'exciting' in order to hold someone's attention seems wrong.  What qualifies as 'exciting' is certainly subjective, but the suggestion seems to be that you must be watching a an episode of 24 or something else with violence, sex, or a chase scene to qualify.  Sitcoms don't seem to qualify as 'exciting' but I assure that you I absorb every second of The Office and 30 Rock without needing an ad to reset my brain.  Same for good dramas, like CSI (whose characters spend most of their time doing 'exciting' lab work) or Mad Men (whose charm is, at least in part, due to their portrayal of the mundane parts of real life).

The blurb in the Globe suggests the researchers used Taxi as a model for the type of television show it wanted to test.  If that is true, I'd say that could be a big reason why the research is flawed.  Taxi was a terrific show and groundbreaking for its time, but it would not be as popular today because the quality and the tone of the television shows we watch now is different.  As the shows have changed, to meet the expectations of the audience or follow the trends of the time, the advertising has needed to change as well.  But the progress there has been slower - so the advertisers are working off an old model.  That has left viewers even more committed to the shows and less interested in the ads.  Unless something changes, it will only get worse for advertisers too.

I still don't think advertising has much value, and it certainly doesn't enhance the television watching experience.  If, or when, I get a copy of the research, I'll let you know if it says something to change my mind.