Give us a break and pay attention to our research

Recent London Business School research on viewer behaviour has gained much publicity, but its findings are misleading, according to Guy Abrahams

Several newspapers have run debates on a piece of qualitative research by Mark Ritson of the London Business School. It tries to prove categorically that not everyone who watches a programme watches the ads.

Illustrations of people on couches not watching ads are far from new. If memory serves me correctly, it was just such a provocative image on an HHCL advertisement covering the same issue that got the agency fired from the Thames TV account 13 years ago.

Following his initial success, I look forward to Ritson’s future shock-horror revelations about other forms of media research. How about “not everybody who looks at a newspaper for at least two minutes reads every page,” or “people walk past posters without looking at them”?

It is a shame that someone can generate such publicity by highlighting the first rule of media: not all opportunities to see are taken. It is also naive and, dare I say, disrespectful to advertisers – who spend millions of pounds tracking and modelling the effects of their ads – for Ritson to claim his research challenges their evaluations.

My fundamental problem with Ritson’s research is not his use of ethnography (which has been criticised by some), but instead the very premise of his research. He is under the false impression that programme audience determines the price of a break. One call to any media agency would have told him that BARB’s minute-by-minute tracking means that the price of a break varies by minute according to its audience size, irrespective of how good the programme itself is.

His technique highlights four negative behaviours that “challenge” the way we value TV advertising. The first behaviour, channel hopping, is a non-issue: BARB does not record these viewers.

Other negative behaviours of social interaction (chatting to the family), reading or tasking (ie. cleaning or ironing) do not necessarily mean that no attention is paid to the ads. TV may not always be seen but it is, more often than not, heard. This fact and the concept of low-involvement processing means advertising to people in this state is not wasted but merely under-performing.

Ritson is right to say that attention is an issue: media agencies have been arguing this point for years. Many more hours and much more money have been devoted to this than Ritson has spent on his sensationalist fluff. Carat itself has spent years working on the relationship between viewer attentiveness and advertising recall.

There is always a place for qualitative research within the industry and debate on the subject should always be welcomed. However, to discount years of cumulative audience understanding and industry-standard measures by inflating the significance of a tiny study such as this is surely wrong.

Guy Abrahams is strategy director at Carat

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