Sunday, February 15, 2009

Do People Actually Enjoy Commercials?

Of course they do.

We love them and have become fascinated, accustomed and frustrated with commercials on TV.

We laugh at beer commercials (and all the while admiring the bikini girls), we have fallen in love with the Telus animals and sung loudly (and repeatedly) to numerous catchy jingles for decades.

Perhaps the sheer absurdity of this TV propaganda is what drove many of us to new DVR and PVR technologies, items that allow us to zip through commercial time and satisfy an increasingly A.D.D.-ridden MTV generation. But wait… a recent report in the Journal of Consumer Research claims people are actually missing their commercials. "Six studies demonstrate that, although people preferred to avoid commercial interruptions, these interruptions actually made programs more enjoyable," the report stated.

So in essence, it's not the commercials themselves that have people feeling a little nostalgic; they just appreciate the forced break, just when we were thinking Mr. Clean was making a revival.

The study found it doesn't matter whether a commercial is good or bad – both types eliminated the enjoyment plunge that came in the second half of viewing a TV program sans break.

TV commercials rose in the 1950s with ads featuring outlandish concepts by today's standards – doctors selling cigarettes, housewives loving dish detergent and food commercials with subliminal messaging to eat, eat and eat more.

Today we aren't exactly better off thanks to bikini-clad babes in beer ads, drug commercials that never actually tell you what they're treating you for and strategically placed cups on American Idol.

Personally, I always enjoy a good TV ad… and even a bad one (Snuggie).

So, do people really like advertising?

I guess it kind of makes sense that people who make advertising for a living are going to want to believe that people actually like their hard work and craft, but it remains a constant source of amazement to me that this statement is continually trotted out by otherwise intelligent people.

Anyone who has ever done any amount of consumer research around advertising will know that it is way more complicated than that. People don't like advertising. That said, most don't dislike it either. For the most part, advertising is a part of the media landscape and, with regard to TV, simply part of the package. Naturally there are some aspects of TV advertising that annoy and some that please, but it is way too simplistic and convenient to say "people like advertising."

In essence, people like some advertising and are at best ambivalent and at worst annoyed by the rest. To say that "people like advertising" is about as meaningful (and accurate) as saying "people like people."

Ask most consumers if they would prefer TV without ads and they will say yes. The fact that most will switch their opinion if you tell they'll have to pay more isn't a testament to the heartfelt regard they have for the product of the advertising community; it merely tells us that ads are the lesser of two evils when stacked up against the prospect of parting with cold, hard cash.

Having said this, show people an ad that makes them laugh, tells them something they didn't know, or offers them something of relevance, and the response is entirely different. People like advertising of this nature.

The challenge with such "likable" advertising of course is that -- as Shakespeare put it -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are endless variables that determine whether or not an ad strikes a chord with a viewer -- from sense of humor to relevance and timeliness -- and pretty much none of them can be governed by the advertiser.

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