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Valuing Fast-Forward: NBC Researching Advertising in a Tivo Age

ad studyScientific studies testing the quality of TV programming or the efficiency of advertising aren’t a new thing.  In the children’s educational realm, esteemed programming from Sesame Street to Blues Clues has been built around detailed research.  Sesame Street actually has an Education and Research (E&R) department that reviews scripts and oversees studies aimed at revealing how to best deliver content to their target audience. In Universities, classes are dedicated to media and advertising, or psychology and advertising; all looking at voluminous studies about what does, or doesn’t, work in delivering a message (educational, advertising, or otherwise) to the audience.  For as long as someone has been selling a product, there has been someone else selling a means to be a better salesman.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on one of the newest experiments in television advertising.  The study is being run for television network NBC.  What makes for an interesting twist is, in the new study, unlike prior examples, the immediate goal isn’t to sell products to consumers, rather, it is instead to help the network sell ad slots to advertisers. 

At issue is fast-forwarded commercials and whether they leave any impact on the viewer.    In these times of Tivo-TV where digital video recorders allow consumers to watch TV with built in delays it’s a contentious subject.   TV ads are valued based on impressions (or views) by the audience.  Advertisers pay millions of dollars for these “eyeballs.”  But if a viewer is using a Digital Video Recorder to scroll and fast forward past the ads, they could be paying for views they don’t actually get.  Advertisers don’t want to pay for ads that they believe are not viewed.   TV Networks, on the other hand, want to maximize their advertising returns (especially in the face of increased competition from the Internet for advertising dollars).  They don’t want to have to discount for ads that may, or may not be viewed.  They don’t want to have to come up with a metric for accurately determining how many ads are skipped.  The measurement and accounting would be a nightmare.  Ergo, NBC is running tests, tests to convince advertisers that fast forwarded ads are still valuable.

In the experiments for NBC, done with the help of Innerscope Research,  people are hooked up to sensors that measure heart rate, skin temperature (sweaty palms) changes in breathing, and also sensors which measure eye movement. (Eye-tracking is an old standby in media experiments.  It’s  been used to test things as varied as where to place on a character on the screen in  a Sesame Street educational skit or to measure  whether a viewer’s eyes are focused on the beer or the scantily clad model in beer commercials).

The starting presumption has been that ads played at rapid frame rates (e.g. scrolled through with fast-forwarding) do not register with the viewers at all; that they have no material value in promotion or brand building.   NBC’s study hopes to prove that wrong.

Preliminary results suggest, contrary to what advertisers expected, there is value in ads run at high speed.     Despite the fact that a fast forwarded advertisement might compress from thirty seconds to ten (or less), biological results in the tests are showing there is perception and awareness.    

It’s an interesting twist, and one that runs seemingly counter to intuition but it’s not without a scientific foundation.  People have long been understood to have two levels of thought.  If you step into a street, and a car is about to hit you, you don’t casually take in the scene, or contemplatively think “Ugh oh” and “Should I go left or right.”  You perceive the danger, take in the scene, make a decision and react – all in a time frame faster than a blink of the eye; faster than a conscious thought.  The perception of TV, even at triple speed, may be playing to the same systems of awareness.

In cognitive psychology there have been a number of unrelated experiments that would seem to support these findings.  In one unrelated study (more famously reported in the book Blink), students were challenged to grade the teaching abilities of their professors.  One group of students, Group A, rated the professor after spending a semester as a student in the professors class.  Another group, Group B, watched three short, silent video clips (each only ten seconds long) of the same professor.  The study found that after watching just the ten second clips, played with no sound, Group B students generally gave the teacher the same rating as the kids in Group A who sat in on the professor’s lectures for months.

It’s possible that both groups based their ratings on first impressions, and that Group B, only used the time sitting in on the class, to reinforce their initial impression; sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Still, the fact that students were able to grade the teachers with a measurable level of accuracy with just ten seconds of silent video suggests we see more than we realize; recognize more than we can sometimes quantify or explain.

The biologic results in the NBC study fall into line with that reasoning.  They suggest, brand and advertising messages are delivered (or may be) based on much more subtle criteria than the written pitch, or the chosen words.   That’s not something that will be easily accepted by the advertising industry (if it’s even accurate, and this study is far from proving it is).  

In the NY Times article, Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director for national broadcast at MindShare (which is part of ad conglomerate WPP),  is quoted as saying, “You’ve created a message that in theory requires 15 seconds or 30 seconds to get that selling message across. On a high-speed DVR, 30 seconds gets pushed down to 1.5 seconds with no audio. It just wouldn’t work.” 

What if, in fact, it does work?  What if “Theory” is the key word in his quotation?  If  the message were delivered in just 2 seconds, and received, much of the money spent building the 30 second commercial might have been wasted.  That’s not an easy pill to swallow.

NBC is not stopping with this test, nor its preliminary findings.  The network is also working with Innerscope to try and understand which commercials are more engaging to viewers at higher speed (and eventually why that is).  They recognize that with fast forwarded commercials, the audience isn’t actually watching passively.  Quite the opposite, they are watching carefully to try and figure out when the commercial ends and the program resumes.  In fast forward mode, it might even prove to be the case that viewers are more focused on the screen, and more engaged with the advertising as a result, than when the programming is playing at normal speed.

Somewhere in the careful focus, to find the end of the commercial, core parts of the advertising messages are getting through.  If NBC and Innerscope can learn more about that, they hope they will be able to do two things: i. convince advertisers that fast forwarded ads are worth paying for; and ii. Maybe gain insight into how to make ads more influential and meaningful to the consumer audience.

Though the idea of nuero-psychology applied to aiding a commercial sale is a bit scary (and going a step further toward the possibility of brain scanning to figure out how best to sell a product is unequivocally disturbing), the science of the research is fascinating.     That a major network is supporting this research is also revealing.  Clearly NBC is concerned about losing ad-revenue and looking for a way to justify keeping it.

But, even if the science proves accurate, even if fast forwarded ads are worth paying for – NBC will face a hard sell convincing advertisers to pay up.  NBC has such a bias, using the study for argument is like Ben and Jerry’s commissioning research studies to prove ice cream has health benefits, or better yet, isn’t fattening.  Even if it turned out to be true, who’d believe them?  If I heard that, I’d be thinking they were eating too much of their Cookie Dough and Cherry Garcia. 


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