Do We Process Skipped Commercials?


Television advertisers have a lot to worry about these days. The traditional networks have lost market share to an explosion of specialty channels, and television as a whole is threatened by other powerful entertainment choices like the Internet and increasingly realistic video games. One of the biggest worries is that even when television programs are viewed, the ads may be skipped by using TiVo and other DVR technology. One neuromarketing study purports to have good news for advertisers: the researchers say that people’s brains DO process the information in fast-forwarded commercials.

Now a neuromarketing study finds that viewers aren’t zoning out, but actually pay attention to ads when hitting their fast-forward button. “Our conclusion was that people don’t skip ads,” said Carl Marci, cofounder and CEO of Innerscope Research. “They’re just processing them differently.” [From LiveScienceTV Ads Grab Attention in Fast-Forward by Jeremy Hsu.]

Marci used a variety of biometric measures to evaluate how 100 subjects watched an episode of a new television show. These included:
– Skin conductance (to measure emotional arousal)
– Electrocardiography (to measure heart rate)
– Respiration bands (to track breathing rate)
– Accelerometer (to detect motion in any direction)
– Eye-tracking (to determine where the subject was looking)

The results were surprising:

Viewers who watched live better remembered ads a day later than viewers who used DVR to fast-forward through commercials at 6x normal speed. But the DVR group still recalled ads and recognized brands at twice the expected rate, given the fast-forwarding and the complete loss of sound from the commercials.

“People were in a hyper-alert state emotionally, because they don’t want to miss their show,” Marci noted.

Seeing a familiar ad also jogged memories among both live viewers and DVR viewers. The ad recall of DVR viewers shot up from 15 percent to 53 percent when they had seen the ad before.

Similar results were reported last year, as described by Louise Story of the New York Times in Engaging at Any Speed? Commercials Put to Test. Reportedly, some advertisers are optimizing their ads for viewing in fast forward.

I’m a bit skeptical of the effectiveness of most ads when fast forwarded. I try to view recorded programs rather than live ones, largely because I can view the show in a shorter period of time by skipping commercials. I’m actually a lot more engaged when fast forwarding, but (as far as I can tell) that engagement is focused on pattern matching that will tell me the show is back – a distinctive splash screen or establishing shot, etc. If I’m hyper-alert while careening forward, I can hit “Play” and miss only a few seconds of the program, usually with no loss of dialog. I suppose if a big logo hovered in one place for a few seconds while I was fast forwarding, I might process it. I make those comments with some caution, as I’m fully aware of how much our subconscious mind takes in without conscious awareness. Still, this study has the feel of TV networks making a last-ditch stand to defend the value of conventional 30-second spots.

There’s one other obvious pitfall to all of this. Even if there was a way to create a thirty second spot that was effective when compressed to only 5 seconds of high speed viewing, it would provide no defense against my favorite ad-elimination tool: the “skip” button. By leaping ahead in 30-second jumps, it enables the viewer to skip three minutes of commercials in a few seconds. Will the next study say something like, “Fractional-second Exposures Have Big Branding Impact”?

Henry Blodget of Silicon Valley Insider is skeptical, too:

And this means that you, the gullible advertiser, should not only keep spending millions of dollars producing beautiful TV ads with vivid sound, colors, actors, and stories…you should be eager to pay the same CPMs. Even though your ad is on screen for one-sixth of the time and isn’t shown with a clear picture or sound!

What’s one successful way to get your ad noticed? Make it look like the show it appears on. I’ve stopped fast forwarding when I recognized an actor from the recorded show or a scene similar enough to convince me that the program had started. While I resumed fast forwarding after I determined that I was viewing a commercial ad or network promo, these spots did score some seconds of regular-speed viewing with audio.

  1. Perry Belcher says

    I say yes. The mind can process at such high rates and most commercials we have already seen at least once anyway. There is value in the spot even if it is at 10X the question is, is there more?

  2. Ravi says

    I think fast forwarding an ad is an act of rejection, so remembering it is likely negative for whichever brand it is. This study is probably backed more by a desperation to somehow get brands to advertize on TV. It would be interesting to see who backed the study which may suggest some biases.

  3. Shane says

    Some channels are getting wise the the ff thingy and now place their logo in between the ads – which gives the ff’der the impression that the recorded program is just about to start again – National Geo is one of these stations.

  4. Nathalie says

    This made me think of the study done by EmSense that tested whether Effie and Lion award winning commercials were neurologically more effective than other commercials and it found that they did in fact engage the midbrain faster:

    “Typically, a spot engages with viewers in 5 to 7 seconds. The Cannes and Effie ads engaged, whether emotionally or cognitively, in 1.5 seconds.”

    This seems to say that the more “effective” a commercial is the more likely you will be to remember it in that 6 second fast forward period.

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