January 21, 2020

  by Nigel Hollis

As a long-time cord cutter much of my real-time TV exposure happens in a hotel room, and, OMG, most ads these days seem to expect an immense amount of interest and attention from the audience. What are their creators thinking?

Some of the ads are so confusing that they actively cause me to think about which brand they were trying to advertise or what message they were trying to get across. But let me state right now, that’s professional interest, it is in no way reflective of the audience at large. If nothing else, when a normal person watching an ad is confused, they do not try to figure out what was shown and said, largely because their attention is going to be focused on the next ad or the show they really want to watch.

In the UK, where I spent last week, it is apparent that vast amounts of intellectual effort, time and money has gone into making TV ads attention getting, distinctive and memorable. As a result, however, the cognitive load required to figure out what the ad is trying to communicate has become enormous. Repetition does not help. There is one ad that I have now watched multiple times and I still cannot figure out what brand or product is being advertised. And I want to know. Most people could not care less.

Presumably all the brands advertising on TV are doing so in order to promote growth in some way. And we should all know that nine times out of 10 growth comes from attracting new users to buy the brand. However, we should also know that most categories are bought intermittently, and a substantial proportion of growth will come from people who have never bought the category before. That means most ads are going to be irrelevant viewers when seen. The real challenge of broadcast advertising is not to gain attention; it is to create a clear, compelling and lasting impression of the brand that will influence future choice.

The fundamental problem is that most advertisers have bought into the belief that TV ads need to grab people’s attention and hold it. Now, that is true of online video, where people are more actively engaged and can click away after five seconds. But when it comes to TV, you have more time to get an impression across. But it is an impression. Not a message. Not facts about how the brand works. Not some intellectual analogy that needs to be decoded and considered.

When it comes to TV, the battle for attention is lost when the anticipation of interest is less than checking social media, making a nice cup of tea or relieving a full bladder. If someone is not going to pick up the phone or leave the room, they will likely pay some attention to what is onscreen. That’s why they are there after all, to be entertained, to be informed and to relax. However, do not expect them to reflect on what is shown and said. The most effective ads are the ones with which help people respond emotionally and identify with what is shown creating a lasting impression that will influence their behaviour at a later date.

Today, when reaching a mass audience costs more than ever, putting an ad on air that stands no chance of being understood, remembered or influencing future behaviour is just a waste of time and money. While a pre-test can provide a simple and cost-effective check of how people are likely to respond, even pre-production, perhaps the best way to avoid wasting expensive media money is simply to remember that we are trying to influence humans who have no inclination or time to think about what they see and hear.


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