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Friday, April 20, 2012

Commercial Avoidance Revisited and The Invisible Gorilla

In January 2009, when I was beginning this blog, an early post was entitled “The Elephant In All Our Offices.” The basic premise was that commercial avoidance was growing steadily and we all had to face up to it.

When I wrote that post DVR (time shifting devices) penetration was at about 28% of US TV households. Recently, Nielsen projected that DVR penetration is now at 41% and other sources peg it at 43-44% of the total household frame.

So, it would seem to be a good time to update the concept of commercial avoidance. A lot has happened in 39 months.

The big issue is the explosive growth of other video options. Netflix and Hulu have both grown nicely and You Tube usage is up as well.  You can visit sites of ESPN, CNBC, CNN and dozens of other channels and see streaming video of much of their programming with minimal commercial interruption.  Every hour that you spend with them means less exposure to traditional advertising messages. And, with DVR penetration up 46-50% in the last three years, it is clear that people are seeing fewer and fewer commercials.

A new study from Boston College has a few people rattled but not many wish to discuss it. In brief, they state that the majority of viewers are multi-tasking when they watch TV. They toggle back and forth between the TV and another device or two but are not really giving either undivided attention.  This is particularly true of young adults. So, they may be sending a text message, watching video on their I-phone or surfing the web during a two minute commercial break. They are underexposed to the advertising often as much as those who are zipping through the commercials in a recorded program.

As I have done for years, I continue to monitor the effectiveness of media weights. There appears to be a direct correlation between DVR penetration and TV advertising effectiveness. Seven years ago, with a tried and true promotion, 1100 rating points in a specific daypart configuration would be sure to move the sales needle for a specific product.  Now, that same promotion might need 1450 points to generate the same sales spike. Some people dismiss these findings by saying that the economy is still weak so people are not buying. That could be part of the reason but a big culprit has to be that many people are simply not seeing the message as in the past. People have been channel hopping for over 50 years since the remote came in to vogue. Now, it is rampant across most age groups. If you go to Hulu.com you see a lighter commercial load. If you go to Netflix, you can view commercial free.

And, what of top rated shows in the current environment?  Take a leading show such as ABC’s Modern Family. Besides being a Nielsen leader almost every week a new episode airs, it is also a leader in programs that are taped and viewed later. If you want to be in that program in either network or spot TV, the premium on a cost per rating point basis can be very large compared to other primetime fare. But, if 12-16% of the viewing is done days later, how many of people playing it back are seeing your spot? Is the premium still worth it? When I bring this up, people shrug or get silent. Some programs have to be getting somewhat overpriced in this scenario.

The whole issue of commercial avoidance strikes me as not getting nearly enough attention these days. A few panel members were candid with me. Some anonymous comments were: “I am two years from retirement. Why should I bring this up with my clients? It is a lose-lose for all of us. Where would I put the money? We can’t shift much more to social media now.  I still can’t prove that it works well. TV is a security blanket for many of our clients. Off the record, I think that you are correct about the gravity of this issue, but I am not going to stir the pot.”

Another said, “We are very busy and understaffed right now. I am not about to address your theoretical issue with my management or clients.”

I understand but I do not think that the issue is theoretical. Rather it is a cancer that is growing each day.

Why are people not facing up to commercial avoidance? There are many reasons but I believe one of the biggest is that my panel member is right when she says that people are busy. When people are busy they focus and focus hard on the issue that is directly in front of them. If you do that, you sometimes miss some big things.

A few years ago, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons published a book called THE INVISIBLE GORILLA. It is a fascinating look about how intense focusing can make people blind to the obvious. They actually made a brief film that made the point brilliantly. The movie short had two teams passing basketballs back and forth. One team had white shirts on while the other wore black. Viewers were asked to count the number of passes by the white shirted players but to ignore the black. Doing the task was completely absorbing. After a few minutes, a lady wearing a gorilla suit appeared, crossed the basketball court, beat her chest like a good gorilla, and then exited.  Thousand of people have seen the video but usually more than half do not notice the “gorilla”. The task of counting the passes and ignoring the black shirted players absorbs all of the attention and blinds them to the intrusive stimulus. The Nobel Prize winning Behavioral Economist Daniel Kahneman writes that the gorilla study illustrates that “we can be blind to the obvious and we are also blind to our blindness”.

The gorilla study to me is a very nice analogy for what is happening with commercial avoidance. The gorilla is crossing your screen daily and getting bigger and staying longer. But, media and marketing professionals are often so intent on the task in front of them that they are simply not seeing it. And, some, as Kahneman puts it, are actually “blind to our blindness.”

Television’s effectiveness as an advertising medium will not die overnight. But it is losing ground each month and too many are not preparing for the future by hedging their bets and testing alternatives. The gorilla is now 800 pounds. In three more years, he well may be a 1200-pound specimen. Regardless of how busy you are—admit to the problem and start looking at new platforms NOW.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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