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March 1, 2018

TV Commercial Clutter: Once A Problem, Still A Problem

A Current Snapshot

Pivotal Research Group recently released its January 2018 findings on the average number of national TV advertising minutes per hour, reporting that the national average was 11 minutes per hour, up almost 4% since 2016.  The data below presents the findings on a more granular level for 2017 versus 2018.

But how much of an issue is this, really? Let’s take a look at past research and see.  

Looking Back At Commercial Clutter Research

There has always been concern over increasing commercial loads. From 1986-2001 the 4As and the ANA jointly monitored commercial and non-program clutter and released their findings annually in their Television Commercial Monitoring Report. In this period, they found that primetime broadcast network commercial messages increased from about 6.5 minutes per hour in 1986 to over nine minutes per hour in 2001. The 4As/ANA reported cable across all dayparts and cited an average commercial load of over 11 minutes per hour in 2001.

At that time, we were reporting on studies that demonstrated just how much clutter affects commercial recall and impact. First, a December 1999 venture sponsored by Zenith Media analyzed the recall of the first in-break ad by the number of commercials in the pod. As shown in the following table, commercials that ran all by themselves, with no additional ads sharing the same break, outperformed those that ran first in a five-ad pod by an 11-to-one margin. And that’s for the first ad in the pod; imagine the recall levels of the four or fifth ad.

Second, an April 2000 CAB/Nielsen study of unaided commercial recall among primetime TV viewers found that viewers who were exposed to breaks featuring 1-3 ad messages were 34% more likely to recall one or more commercials than those exposed to 4-6 ad messages. As clutter increased to 7-9 commercials and finally to 10+ commercials per break, viewers became even less likely to recall even a single advertiser.

Back to the Future

But one might ask if nearly 20-year-old studies have any relevancy in today’s media environment. We believe so. How can clutter not have an adverse effect on the effectiveness of commercials in registering their messages with audiences? One might argue that advertisers are savvier and feature ads that integrate with viewers’ favorite shows or in some other way stand out in a way that resonates with audiences, or that networks are more sensitive to the issue and find ways to break up the clutter (inserting short blocks of program content in the middle of a pod to pique the viewer’s attention). The counterpoint is that, as shown in Pivotal’s findings, clutter rates continue to rise. Furthermore, multitasking on smartphones and tablets, and ease of avoidance (DVRs) were not even factors 20 years ago, so one can imagine that the recall rates are worse than reported in the studies we cited. These studies quantified what everyone already knew: clutter distracts. And more clutter is more distracting. 

Editor’s Note: At press time, NBCUniversal announced that they would be carrying 10% fewer ads in its primetime original programming across all its platforms and entire portfolio of cable channels this fall. They also announced several new ad formats, designed to catch viewers’ attention through unique placement or editorial tie-ins with the programming. Said Linda Yaccarino, Chairman of Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships at NBCU via Adweek, “We know that the live, linear viewing experience needs to change. We are serving a consumer who has come to expect fewer ads, and more relevant ads.”



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