Is TV being ignored? The evidence

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The other day The Guardian ran an interesting piece about US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s digital campaign. Romney’s digital director, Zac Moffat, justified the campaign’s investment in digital by talking about consumers who are ‘off the grid.’

By this he meant the third of Americans who no longer watch live TV, except sports, and so are largely immune to TV advertising.

It’s an appealing statement for those of us who earn our living in this field. But is it in any way accurate? Can you really talk about a large body of consumers who are outside the reach of conventional media, in this case TV, and so conventional advertising?

Needless to say the answer is not black and white, but involves shades of grey.

Off the grid – is TV being ignored?

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Two thirds of us still watch scheduled TV, but viewers are getting older

First of all let’s look at live TV, which Zac Moffat was specifically referring to.    In the US, as the Guardian article states, around a third no longer watch live TV.   The UK figure is the same – 36% according to a study released in March.

Of course, these people haven’t stopped watching TV altogether, they now just watch it via their PVRs or services such as BBC’s iPlayer. More to the point, that still leaves 2/3 who do watch television in the “normal” way.  And according to the UK’s regulatory authority, OFCOM, the television is still the most essential media for consumers.

That’s for all consumers though, and the picture changes once you look at different age groups.   For the under 25s, the TV is the third most essential media behind the mobile phone and PC+Internet.  Indeed figures from the US show that the average viewer age of the main networks is steadily creeping up

Do we ignore TV ads?  Depends on who you believe

What about TV advertising?  A fairly common perception is that ad breaks are an opportunity for a lot of viewers to take comfort breaks / put the kettle on / check their emails / go on Twitter.   In fact different pieces of research come to vastly different conclusions on the subject.

As far back as 1992, so in the distant pre-Internet age, a New Zealand study found that almost half viewers left the room for at least part of the time when ads were showing. OFCOM has more recent research on the subject.

Though OFCOM didn’t publish any exact figures, the report suggests high levels of ad avoidance, that crucially varies by time of day, e.g. more viewers ignore ads in the early evenings when people are doing domestic chores.

Marketing Week pundit Mark Ritson has however put a % to TV ad avoidance, saying that studies he was involved in, in the UK and Australia pointed to around 30% of ads being watched when the viewer *was in the room*.

Not so, says Thinkbox, who cited their own research in response showing that 68% of viewers elicited some kind of “observable ad related behaviour.”

Meanwhile, a study by the US Council for Research excellence found that there was neither a tendency to channel hop or leave the room while a TV ad was on.   Which of course isn’t to say those viewers were paying much attention.

The key metric – engagement, not eyeballs

So who is right?  All of them, in their own way.   That is especially so if you measure attention and engagement as opposed to viewers and eye-balls. Back in 2010, OFCOM released figures about attention levels around different forms of media.

Computer games and surfing the Internet had relatively high levels of attention, social media was somewhere in the middle, while scheduled TV was near the bottom, just above radio and music playing via an MP3 player / stereo.    And crucially, the Council for Research Excellence study mentioned above found that multi-tasking was found to accompany 45% of *all* TV consumption, this wasn’t  restricted to the ad breaks.

Similarly, when we do look back at TV ad breaks, an IPG Media Lab study carried out in Los Angeles pointed to around 37% ‘full’ attention during commercials.

But not giving an ad your full attention doesn’t necessarily mean giving it no attention. IPG found that smartphones are now the number one distraction device when watching TV (a finding echoed by Shazam, which says that most people check their phones when the ad break comes on).   As an aside, IPG found that online video ads command a better attention span than TV ads.

Smartphone use while the TV was on, was found by IPG to leave viewers with an attention score of 0.46, where full attention is 1.0. In other words, some of what’s coming from the box is being taken in, though by no means most, let alone all of it.

Conclusion – consumers aren’t off grid, they are reaching it in a different way

As mentioned above, The Council for Research Excellence has told us that TV distractions are more or less constant, ads or not.  OFCOM has also found that 20% of all media time – 29% for 18-24 year olds, 23% for 25-44 year olds is simultaneous, involving so-called media stacking:  TV + laptop, TV + smartphone, or in fact TV + laptop + smartphone / tablet.

As a result, increasing number of viewers aren’t off the grid, they are however accessing it in a different way and their media consumption is no longer linear.

That also means that the primacy of the TV is changing and the often used term of the ‘second screen’ (with the assumption that the TV is the first) is no longer really accurate.   There are several screens on at once, all competing for attention.

However, it is also not a case of traditional media channels being replaced by newer ones, they work very much in tandem. The challenge for marketers is of course how to make those screens come together, and (in the case of smartphone + TV users) get some of that 54% attention that they currently don’t have. Do so, in a non intrusive way, and there is measurable success.

Case in point – while Thinkbox showed that most of consumers did have some awareness of the TV ads, they also came to the conclusion that (at least when you look at consumers who are medium+ users of digital TV and broadband) when you use online and TV advertising together, you have up to 50% increased positive brand perception and significantly higher levels of purchase.

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