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Issue Date: March 2005

The softer intrusion of print

July 2005

Erwin Ephron argues that print is more effective because it does not intrude aggressively
In the past an article on consumer response to advertising would describe how advertising works. Today it more likely describes how it does not. The most carefully monitored response to advertising right now is commercial avoidance.
At a recent private meeting, the research head of a TV network suggested the percentage of audience lost to advertising avoidance and inattention was pretty similar across different media. His convenient conclusion was that commercial avoidance does not change relative media value. As goes TV, so go mass media; a doomsday scenario for advertising, if you are easily discouraged.
I strongly disagree.
Growing commercial avoidance does not threaten mass media. It threatens intrusive media like TV and radio.
Intrusive advertising
I think my friend Jack Myers senses this when he writes about 'new media technologies that attack the foundation of intrusive advertising', referring to television, PVRs and TiVo.
But perhaps we should think about intrusive advertising as culprit rather than victim? Perhaps intrusive advertising has outgrown its consumer welcome in this age of consumer rights? These are important questions for advertisers.
Jack is right in suggesting we should worry. Intrusiveness has been a key to TV advertising's great success. The TV message arrives uninvited and takes its time to make the case. And no matter what the product, age or mental state, every viewer looking at the set is fair game.
At least until now. Today half of prime time viewers opt out They are willing to switch channels to avoid being detained by a parade of commercials. Today inattention and commercial avoidance, PVRs and TiVo are raising serious questions about the future viability of ad-supported TV and radio. And this has put the question to all media: how do you compare? How many of your listeners, readers, passers-by pay attention to the advertising you carry?
I think the obvious answer is some media do better than others. Now let us look at why.
Paradox of the aggregate
Keynes, the economist who invented deficit spending, described a market where each person, by trying to win, creates a situation where everyone loses.
He called it 'the paradox of the aggregate'. Yogi Berra's example was a restaurant 'so popular, no one goes there any more'.
Commercial avoidance is in part a paradox of the aggregate created by the popularity of TV. Everyone trying to get their commercials seen means fewer people see their commercials. And, indeed, most of our analysis of TV commercial avoidance has focused on advertising excess as the trigger. It is a simple explanation. More commercials lose more viewers.
The fuller explanation is that consumers do not like the intrusion of irrelevant (meaning unrelated) messages into the media space. It interrupts the connection and changes the mood. That is probably why the data show that 'must-see TV' composed of the programmes most frequently fast-forwarded with TiVo.
Intrusion, irrelevance and loss of control
But irrelevance and intrusion alone do not explain commercial avoidance. A billboard is considered irrelevant and intrusive, yet no one makes a conscious decision not to look at it.
The word control makes the process clearer, because how long the intrusion lasts is what people find annoying. In TV the medium controls time. A typical commercial pod is four minutes, or about nine messages, long. Viewers feel trapped and exploited, and many respond by trying to escape: talking, eating, reading, going online or going elsewhere. The growth of commercial avoidance in broadcast is a result of the growing number and length of irrelevant commercial interruptions.
Commercials seem irrelevant because TV targets broadly. It works by the chance meeting of a selling message with relatively few ready prospects in an audience of many viewers. Even the most frequently repeated TV ads seem irrelevant to most viewers. Few viewers need a new credit card or a car. Do your own survey when you are viewing tonight
Print intrudes softly
Print is a different advertising model. In print, advertising intrudes softly, because ads are more likely to be relevant and readers control exposure.
The greater relevance is a function of print's better targeting. Magazine titles segment by reader interest, and target prospects, shoppers, lifestyles and demographics far better than TV. This means ad content is more often relevant to the consumer when reading than it is to the consumer when viewing.
And reading is not like viewing. Readers control time, viewers do not. When reading, consumers actively screen content (including ads) to fix on items of interest. When confronted by ads that are not of interest, they turn the page.
These differences in the mechanics of reading and viewing have important consequences; with print advertising, other relevant ads further in the issue still have a fair chance of being read. On TV, even compelling commercials that appear later in the pod may not be seen.
To sum up
There is less commercial avoidance in print because the messages are more relevant And what avoidance there is tends to be selective.
Commercial avoidance in TV is rampant because messages tend to be less relevant and exposure is out of the viewer's control. And avoidance itself is more often total (I go to view something else).
Because of these differences in how consumers respond to print and TV advertising, it is possible that the media value balance has already shifted to print.
Source: Admap June 2005


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