What people really do during commercials

How people behave in front of the television has both fascinated and challenged the media research world for decades. While we are fortunate to have access to reliable audience measurement data, we know that presence in a room with the TV...

How people behave in front of the television has both fascinated and challenged the media research world for decades. While we are fortunate to have access to reliable audience measurement data, we know that presence in a room with the TV on does not necessarily equate to undivided attention to whatever is on the screen.

Audience measurement research is designed for very specific and limited goals – to characterize program audiences in terms of a straightforward set of demographic classifications and to provide reliable estimates of audience size for every program shown. It delivers against those objectives very well. Through these data, the advertising business can trade commercial airtime and broadcasters can continuously assess the success – or failure – of program schedules. However, with billions of advertising dollars at stake, there is a need to go further and try to understand the viewing process from the viewers’ perspective.

As long ago as 1962, Lintas published a report called ‘Television in the family setting.’ They stated their objectives for the research as follows: ‘There is a vital need from the advertising point of view to have more definitive information on television’s role as a dynamic influence on family behaviour and to get beyond viewing figures to see how much attention commercials are receiving.’ The conclusions were as follows:

Viewers had developed ways of dividing attention between the TV and other activities.

Many had developed ways of anticipating the start of commercial breaks that led to them providing time for other activities.

The evidence suggested that attention to breaks was dependent on the popularity of the program.

Attention to commercials increased as the evening progressed.

The Lintas study was conducted in a relatively uncomplicated environment, before the days of remote controls, video recorders, multi-set households and the multi-channel universe – and at a time when TV played a major role in daily life.

We have to accept that nowadays people do not sit glued to the set, undisturbed and uninterrupted as they often did in the past.

Eye-opening study

Nevertheless, recent research by the University of Leeds in the U.K. has found that the issues affecting viewing behaviour today are broadly the same as they were 40 years ago. This is both good news and bad. On the one hand, it means that previous studies are not necessarily completely out of date. The bad news is that any question over whether people-meter measurement accurately records anything even close to attention to the screen during all programs should be of greater concern than ever.

The Leeds study is being conducted using ethnographic techniques. Seventeen families have given permission for cameras with sound to be placed in the main living areas of their homes for two three-week periods over two years.

The families were selected on four criteria that reflect their levels of media and technological sophistication. Traditional homes have terrestrial-only television. Evolving Families have a computer, but are not equipped with a modem. Leading Edge homes have a computer with a modem and the New Workers have a computer at home that is used for employment.

The sample is small but the results are rich. Over the past two years, literally thousands of hours of video footage has been collected. From this material, it is possible to observe a wide variety of household circumstances: how people spend time, how family members relate and interact, how they use new technologies and how they behave in front of the TV.

There is an exhaustive set of influential variables that will potentially affect behaviour during commercial breaks. Analysis has shown the most important to be:

• How involved viewers are in programs

• The length of the program

• Characteristics of viewers

• Whether the viewing experience is a solitary experience or takes place with others present

MindShare’s Quality of Viewing study concluded that involved viewers were 49% more likely to watch the commercial break and up to 30% better at remembering the commercials they had seen. Other studies have found a similar, positive correlation.

While it is not possible to investigate advertising recall in the Leeds research, observations have substantiated these findings as far as general behaviour is concerned. In other words, people who have specifically chosen to watch a program are more likely to remain present for the commercial breaks within it.

Length of program

When a viewer makes an ‘appointment to view’ specific programs of short duration, reasons to leave the screen – or the room – are few. The viewer knows that he or she will only be sitting for half an hour or an hour and is mentally and physically prepared to do so. Of course, attention may wander during commercial breaks in short programs, but generally the viewer remains in front of the screen.

During longer programs of high involvement, behaviour during early breaks is very similar to that in short programs. As the program progresses, however, there are often needs and desires that take the viewer away from the set. For advertisers, this can have an impact not only on which break to buy, but also on which position in the break is preferable.

Characteristics of viewers

Attention to television at different times of day is closely related to the demographics of the audience and the roles that television plays in their lives.

Some homes were observed where the television is rarely switched off. The sound acts as a backdrop to other activities; attention is intermittent, at best casual, with little attention being paid either to programs or breaks. These circumstances can hardly be described as viewing in the true sense – the TV is performing a role closer to that of radio.

Lighter viewing households tend to be selective and only turn on the set when there is something they specially choose to watch. Their viewing tends to be at least focused. This probably goes a long way to explain why advertising recall scores are generally higher amongst younger, upmarket, lighter viewing groups after fewer advertising exposures. When deciding on campaign issues such as the most effective frequency level, it is important first to study the target audiences’ demographic and weight of viewing.

Solitary vs. collective viewing occasions

Life would be a lot easier if we could only ensure that advertising would be viewed in solitary environments. The presence of others disrupts concentrated viewing to commercial breaks. Perhaps the social shift towards single-occupancy households is a good thing in the commercial world! Unfortunately, while the viewer will often ask for peace and quiet to concentrate on a favourite program, they rarely do so to watch a commercial.

In the Leeds observations, however, there were many examples where advertising intruded into everyday life and where particular attention was paid to specific commercials. There were conversations about why companies change brand names, many ‘Have you seen this one?’ comments and also instances of singing along to the jingles in commercials. But these variations in attention are unpredictable and totally dependent on creative content. It is important to note, however, that the use of humour and music are still very influential in attracting attention.

In summary, this is a very challenging subject, and it is difficult to come to any fixed conclusions, particularly with the complexity of both personal and media environments. One key variable is the level of interest and involvement in individual programs. Broadcasters need to provide more knowledge on program involvement and attention levels as well as audience size. In other words, if they can demonstrate the value as well as the cost of their inventory, then agencies will continue to feel confident in the effectiveness of television in building and maintaining brand sales.

Sheila Byfield is head of consumer insight for MindShare Worldwide – the world’s largest media agency. She is based in London, Eng. and can be reached by e-mail at sheila.byfield@mindshareworld.com