I recently realized that although I never watch live TV and aggressively fast-forward through commercials, I am still surprisingly familiar with a lot of ads: the Tom Brady Foot Locker ad; The Amy Schumer Old Navy commercial; the Ariana Grande T-Mobile spot. I know about Flo from Progressive, the GEICO lizard and the Toyotathon. How do I know about them if I never watch commercials?
The media would have us believe that no one watches ads. But obviously someone sees a lot of them. Nielsen’s C3 rating is a measure of ad viewing and even with competition from smartphones and whatnot, those aggregate ratings are remarkably high. Those of us who “never” watch commercials think it must be all those other dumbbells out there who engage in the retrograde practice of ad watching
Or is it? How many of us are deluding ourselves?
Speaking for myself, if pressed, I would concede that, yes, I actually do watch some (ok maybe more than some) live TV through sports and news shows. And even if you only watch one football game a week you are still exposed to a ton of ads.
Scripted programming is also a surprising source of ad viewing, even for those who give their DVR a good workout because people aren’t as disciplined as they think about fast-forwarding through ads.
Ever since Nielsen began measuring commercial viewing it has been a rule of thumb that only about half of viewers fast-forward through commercials. But if everyone believes they’re the ones who zip through the ads there’s going to be a good deal of self-deception.
The reality of those Nielsen numbers is that among DVR users, some skip all ads, some don’t bother to fast-forward at all, and a great many skip some ads but watch others depending on their mood, energy level, or affinity for the ad.
At my house, what usually happens when we’re watching a DVR’d show is that when the commercial pod comes on I’ll watch the first 15 or 20 seconds in a stupor before my wife yells that we’re watching a commercial for cripes sake. I’ll fast forward, usually stopping half-way through the pod because I think the show is finally coming on, only to discover that what I thought was the resumption of the show was actually another ad. So after watching another 15 seconds of ads, I’ll continue my fast-forwarding, and land about a minute into the show. Then I’ll have to rewind, arriving this time about a half-minute back into the middle of the commercials. Commercial avoidance is a lot of work.
Am I the only one who thinks the precision of the DVR fast-forward function has degraded over time? When we had our first DVR I used to be able to zoom through the commercials and land precisely at the second when the show started up again. Now I can end up half a minute ahead or half a minute behind the resumption of the show because the technology has become so imprecise. In other words, I watch a lot more ads than I realize because I usually give up trying to avoid them.
The other reason I watch recorded commercials is that sometimes they are so good I actually want to watch them. The new Amazon ad about the priest and the imam sending each other knee pads for praying is something I’ll always watch it to the end whenever it’s on. Same with the iPhone 7 ad with balloons floating throughout the city accompanied by a beautiful cover version of “I will follow you.” In fact it’s a huge irony that the best TV ads are now being produced by the same high tech companies (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) that have done so much to undermine the television business model. They, at least, seem to recognize the power of television advertising.
And speaking of digital media, one place I do not enjoy seeing ads is online. A two-minute commercial pod during a streaming TV show seems so much longer than a two-minute ad on TV. When you’re watching an ad on TV you can get up and walk into the kitchen for a glass of water or go to the bathroom, but when you’re watching an online commercial you feel compelled to sit in front of your PC or to hold your smartphone in your hand doing a slow burn until the show resumes.
In 1984, the most memorable moment during the Democratic primaries occurred when Walter Mondale confronted Gary Hart during a debate and said that his policies reminded him of the woman in the Wendy’s commercial who asked “Where’s the beef?” It was a devastating put-down because Hart’s proposals seemed Utopian and lacking specifics. And it was particularly damaging because everyone understood the reference to the ad.
In 2016, there was no similar advertising reference that any politician could cite to undermine a rival because TV ads no longer offer a common cultural connection. But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch a lot of ads. In fact, when I’m fast-forwarding through the commercial pod I almost always recognize ads that I’ve already seen dozens of times. There are more ads than ever before and even the biggest snob who claims never to watch commercials is kidding himself.