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April 1, 2021

Much Ado About…Something? A Closer Look at Nielsen’s Latest Media Usage Data

Nielsen’s March 2021 Total Audience Report recently caused a stir because it found that daily media usage declined in the 3rd quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. This flies in the face of myriad reports that the ongoing COVID pandemic has caused huge gains in media usage among house-bound consumers. But is it time to panic?

First, the basics. When comparing 3rd quarter 2020 findings to 3rd quarter 2019, Nielsen reported declines in average daily time spent across all media, except for internet-connected device usage and computer internet usage, both of which saw slight gains. But the biggest drop off was in app/web usage on a smartphone; no doubt this was due to adjustments to Nielsen’s smartphone measurement, which previously included apps running in the background that inflated the time spent findings. So, what happens if we omit this problematic data? We are left with total weekly time spent of 7 hours, 34 minutes in the Q3 2020, versus 7 hours, 56 minutes in Q3 2019, or a decline of 22 minutes. As a point of comparison, again omitting the smartphone data, total weekly time spent declined only 3 minutes between Q3 2019 and Q3 2018. What does this tell us?

First, it’s possible that all the hype about the huge amount of media consumption during quarantine was just that: hype. Many of the surveys we reviewed in 2020 asked people if they were watching more TV (or using other media) more than usual during quarantine. While it might have felt like it, it’s entirely possible that in actuality, the increases weren’t as great as they seemed, especially with childcare and working from home taking up large chunks of the day. In fact, if we look at Nielsen data from Q1 2020, again omitting the smartphone data, we see that total usage was only up a few minutes over Q1 2019. The second quarter of 2020 actually saw the greatest increase over the previous year, coming in at 8:29 compared to 8:02 in 2Q 2020. Then the 3rd quarter decline set in, as described above. Based on this data alone, it looks like the spike in quarantine media consumption was more of a modest bump.

Second, while the spike in media usage didn’t occur to the degree that might have been expected, it certainly seems that media fatigue has taken its toll. Although much of the reporting on Nielsen’s findings has called the 3rd quarter of 2020 the “peak” of the pandemic, it’s important to note that by the fall of 2020, the U.S. had been under varying degrees of lockdown for about six months. Is it surprising that by then media consumption had taken a tumble? People were—and are—frankly tired of screen time, and perhaps finding it difficult to find new and appealing content to watch.

While it remains to be seen how this will play out as more people are vaccinated and life begins to return to a (new) normal, it’s worth noting that for “video” at least, the numbers are holding steady. Per Nielsen’s latest findings, video consumption (including live + time shifted TV and streaming) has held steady; despite the overall drop in media consumption in the 3rd quarter 2020, video consumption was down only 3 minutes from the same period in 2018. For advertisers who are returning to the medium following major cancellations in 2020, that’s good news.

Can A Platform Inspire Trust In Advertising?

Another noteworthy item in the latest Nielsen Total Audience Report (March 2021) concerns how trustworthy consumers consider advertising on various platforms. Per the report, the two traditional platforms respondents were queried about (TV and radio) came out on top in terms of trusting the claims made on ads appearing in these venues. In addition, social media was far and away the least trustworthy across all age groups.

What we find interesting are the variations by age group. Setting aside social media—which everyone takes with a grain of salt—respondents aged 18-34 and 35-49 considered all the platforms to be mostly the same in terms of trustworthiness, with a 9-point or less spread between the highest and lowest rated categories. However, when it comes to respondents 50+, they indicated much less trust in newer media (streaming, podcasts, apps/websites). This appears to be the opposite of the adage, “familiarity breeds contempt”; younger and middle-aged consumers are used to the newer platforms they were asked about, and rated them more highly in terms of trustworthiness, whereas they are less familiar to older users, and therefore more suspect. But beyond this, respondents aged 50+ were generally less likely than their younger counterparts to rate any medium as “very” trustworthy, even television and radio.

So, can a platform inspire trust in advertising? It seems to us more of an expression of generational mindsets than of the platform itself.




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