The public wants a permanent break from ad bombardment

There is no financial incentive for media owners to reduce advertising – GCap’s share price fell after it announced such a strategy for Capital FM, but the alternative offers a bleak future for advertisers

Thank you AOL. In my last column (MW November 17), I railed against pop-up advertisements on AOL Broadband that were almost impossible to close. I suggested they broke the guidelines of the Internet Advertising Bureau, which warns against “irritating and frustrating the user”. These ads seemed to ignore the rules that all executions “should feature a ‘close’ button in the top right hand corner” and the close button “should be clearly visible at all times”.

Shortly after it appeared, I had a phone call from AOL sales director Giles Ivey. He said he was ringing me as a customer, not a journalist, and he was most apologetic. It seemed I wasn’t the only person to have complained and he was ringing the others too. He said AOL worked closely with the IAB and the ads shouldn’t have appeared in that form. They’d now been changed with the full co-operation of the advertisers.

“Sometimes the technology moves very fast and mistakes can happen,” he said. “We’re a commercial business and that means keeping customers happy. We now plan to set up our own customer panel to ensure that our advertising is engaging and interactive without being intrusive.” In this case, it seems, self-regulation can work.

But it’s not just the internet that is having to reassess the impact that intrusive advertising has on its customers. The radio group GCap has just announced it is halving the amount of advertising it will carry on Capital FM, in an attempt to woo back listeners from the BBC.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 is in discussions with Ofcom after the regulator received 23 complaints from viewers about the amount – and distribution – of advertising in Lost, the hit US drama series.

Ofcom said in its ruling: “They objected to the often relatively short programme segments between commercial breaks. Many also complained about the length of the breaks and what they saw as the overall disproportionate amount of advertising.”

Ofcom put a stopwatch on the programme and found that though it was scheduled to fill 65 minutes of airtime (from 10pm to 11.05), the amount of drama in it (excluding replays of previous episodes and credits) totalled just 36 minutes. It said the programme often started late, at 10.04pm, contained three advertising breaks of around three minutes and 50 seconds each, and ended just before 11pm with a longer end break of five to seven minutes. Up to five minutes of the programme was filled with credits and scenes from previous episodes.

“Taking all these elements, it is unsurprising that viewers had an impression of an excess of commercial material,” said Ofcom.

It upheld the complaints, but only because there was too short a gap between the commercial breaks. In one episode, two of the gaps lasted just 11 minutes and 13 minutes, instead of the required 16 minutes.

Despite this, Channel 4 broke no rule on the total amount of advertising it showed in Lost. Across the day, on average, there must be no more than seven minutes an hour and, in peaktime, no more than eight minutes. But provided those averages are maintained, broadcasters can show up to 12 minutes of commercials in one hour – 20 per cent of the output.

Channel 4 told Ofcom that in order to compete commercially with other terrestrial channels, it needed to maximise the number of breaks in popular programmes and take the maximum allowed amount of advertising.

Compare that with the comments of GCap chairman Ralph Bernard, explaining the decision to halve the amount of advertising on Capital FM and not have more than two ads in a row. He told the City: “We intend to bring listeners back to Capital FM by giving them the kind of radio station they have told us they want. Our listeners have told us they simply want to hear fewer ads. Our advertisers, too, want less clutter, more stand-out for their messages and greater effectiveness. We believe that one of the principal reasons why the BBC has gained market share and radio advertising growth has slowed is that advertising has become too intrusive on major commercial radio stations.”

This decision has not gone down well in the City. GCap’s share price dived, prompting weekend reports that private equity firms are targeting the group for takeover – though its decision not to ask advertisers to pay more for the “less-clutter, more effective” environment may have contributed.

But in a digital world where listeners and viewers have much more choice over the way they access programmes, the plan to reduce advertising to maintain its impact is not a misguided one. Those of us with personal video recorders are not troubled by Channel 4’s decision to carry so much advertising in Lost. We record it and skip through the ads, screeching to a halt when we see the 118 118 sponsorship links.

The realisation that Lost can be watched in 36 minutes, not 65, will surely boost sales of PVRs, and that is unlikely to help advertisers.

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