Jun 26, 2008

Isn't the obvious problem too many commercials?

Desperate times bring desperate measures. Royal Philips Electronics recently patented a device that would force viewers to watch commercials by locking the channel when ads run. That got me thinking. Does it have an eye lock also? And will they sell it as “engagement TV?”
The Philips announcement is a different way of thinking about engagement that we tend to overlook. Not how to engage consumers, but how to not dis-engage them. This idea seems so obvious I wonder how it has eluded us.
The familiar TV advertising model is programs attract viewers who are delivered to the advertising. In this construction there is media engagement which is captured by measures of audience size, composition and loyalty. We call them ratings data. Then there is advertising engagement, defined by measures of recall, persuasion and intent to purchase as delivered by copy testing. These are two kinds of engagement. And we have useful measures for each.
But this is a very dry definition of engagement which leaves hot-blooded advertisers cold. The word “engagement” has more juice. It describes a consumer’s inner state which we expect to be more emotional than recall and ratings suggest. We look for engagement to turn-on a consumer. I think that kind of thinking has muddied the trail.
Certainly media content can create emotional connections with consumers, but they seldom spill over to the advertising. Most evidence is that advertising tends to break the magic spell.
The companion idea of “context” in the sense of content supportive to the products advertised is even weaker. Context is the strong suit of selective media. TV is a mass medium. which seldom offers contextual opportunities if only because of the range of products advertised in a program. In TV, context is the realm of product placement.
What the Philips’ channel-lock device suggests is instead of attempting to discover what creates engagement, let’s think about engagement as something that’s already there. After all most viewers are watching the program when the commercials appear. And the value of the program in engaging viewers is captured by audience data – higher rated programs are by most measures, more engaging.
I think the flat, emotion-free statement “TV attracts viewers who are delivered to the advertising” holds the secret of engagement. It says our engagement problem is in the delivery. It’s in the handoff of attentive consumers from media content to advertising, and the frequent loss of attentiveness along the way. What’s new about this formulation is it forces us to focus on what turns engagement off, rather than what turns consumers on.
It’s obvious that television is less effective because people are paying less attention to the ads. People are paying less attention to the ads because there are too many of them. This loss of attention is really what the search for engagement should be about. The executive summary reads “TV content attracts consumers; too much advertising drives them away.” Sound plausible?
The hunt for emotional and contextual measures of engagement is a poor investment of our energy. It ignores the very obvious role of over-commercialization (and that includes program promos) in driving viewers away from the advertising. We look elsewhere perhaps because the clutter problem seems divisive and much harder to solve.
The challenge is to put a number on the cost advertisers are paying right now for the clutter that is neutering their messages. And see if that money can be better spent in reducing commercial load, much like the ClearChannel Less-is-more initiative in radio. Unless we attempt to do that our engagement problem will remain emotional, unsolvable and TV will continue to self-destruct.
Media are first audience gatherers and then audience deliverers. They can assist advertising engagement by attracting an audience suited to the message and by keeping that audience attentive to the advertising. Media content in itself usually does not create advertising engagement. That is done by the advertising.
We can bring engagement measures into media planning by reducing audience counts to potential buyers who actually see the ads. In this scenario we can improve TV measurements by improving targeting. Moving from demos to users which can make our messages more relevant. And by monitoring the hand-off of audience from content to advertising. How many interruptions, how many commercials? The data are available.
It is estimated that the average cable system will expand ad insertion capabilities to an aditional 30 channels in the next two years, adding thousands of commercial units to a market that is already over-supplied.
No wonder viewers tend to wander. And locking the channel when ads appear won’t bring them back.

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