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Posted by on in Rajan Sambandam
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Can Ads Make TV Better?

Back in the stone age when DVRs did not exist, everyone had to watch TV programs when they were broadcast. Many people still do and so can’t avoid commercial interruptions. Those who record their programs avoid commercials by fast forwarding through them. Why? Because commercials are usually annoying and it is more enjoyable to just watch the show, right? Maybe not, say some researchers. They argue that there is reason to believe that people’s enjoyment of certain shows will decrease over time and commercial interruptions can actually make the show more enjoyable. Research has shown this happens with many positive experiences such as enjoyable scenery, ice-cream, music and even winning the lottery. So, why not with TV watching?  

To test this idea they ran a series of experiments. In the first one, a group of people watched an episode of the sitcom Taxi. Half watched it without commercial interruptions and half saw it with ads just the way the show was broadcast in syndication. At the end of the program they indicated their level of enjoyment. Turns out, the ones who watched it with commercials liked the show more!                  

Well, maybe the commercials were especially boring, you say. To counter that, in the second experiment, they selected a commercial that had been tested and shown to be as likeable as the show itself (in this case an animated clip). Again the commercial disruption seemed to make the show more enjoyable. But is this happening because of what the authors say? That is, are people adapting to the show and their enjoyment reduces unless interrupted by a commercial, or is the simple presence of a commercial making the show more enjoyable?

To test this (mere presence of advertisement) effect they ran another experiment. All participants first saw a very brief nature segment. For some people this was followed by a commercial, then another nature segment and finally a second commercial. For others, the two commercials were inserted into the second segment thus interrupting its flow. The results showed that those who were interrupted with commercials enjoyed the second nature segment more. A further experiment confirmed this by not using a commercial at all. Two documentaries were used, either one after the other (non-interrupted condition) or intertwined (interrupted condition). Those whose viewing experience was disrupted enjoyed the programs more.

The last set of questions the researchers asked were about the kind of shows that lent themselves to adaptation and the kind of people who were more likely to adapt. For both those cases commercials should have a beneficial effect. The experiments they ran showed that older people adapted less to programs, and novel fast-paced programs did not lend themselves to adaptation. In such cases commercial interruptions did not enhance the viewing experience.

So, in sum the results showed that the popular perception of commercials detracting from the enjoyment of the TV show was not always true. Because people’s enjoyment of a show tends to adapt (i.e. decrease over time) commercial interruptions can make shows more enjoyable. This is more likely to be the case for younger people and straightforward shows. Of course, we don’t know the effect of having too many commercials or particularly emotional/terrible commercials. They still could reduce the enjoyment of the show.

This research was conducted by Leif Nelson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of California, Berkeley, Tom Meyvis, Associate Professor of Marketing and Jeff Galak, a doctoral candidate, at New York University.

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