In common with kitsch art, TV commercials may be one of those paradoxical creations that are so bad they are good.
The parallels are not that close, since kitsch strayed from its roots as meretricious tat to become a statement of post-modern irony – it’s a kind of fashionable joke to own an Elvis Presley lavatory roll holder – whereas TV ads have stoically held fast to their essential tattiness. The similarity is that each, in its different way, achieves a measure of virtue in its badness.
According to research at the NYU School of Business in New York, viewers find television more pleasurable when they watch commercials. As a first response you may say, well, that’s just Americans for you – bad taste is, after all, one of that nation’s great strengths; so great, in fact, that it is exported all over the world. But no, the US viewers who took part in the survey said they preferred to avoid TV ads. So what is going on? The answer, it seems, may be found in a version of what economists call the law of diminishing returns. Applied to sociology, the theory postulates that the pleasure of any positive experience diminishes through repetition and over time. Eating a fine meal, listening to a symphony by Sibelius or watching The Simpsons, the longer you do something, the less satisfaction it provides. In other words, there comes a point when, however pleasurable the experience, mankind’s propensity for boredom kicks in.
So how does this effect transform TV ads from something to be avoided into an asset to be valued? According to the researchers, a break from an enjoyable experience – in the case of watching TV, sitting through a few commercials – can be an interruption that helps refresh the novelty of the programme. “People often adapt to the experience of watching television such that each successive minute is slightly less enjoyable than the previous one,” say the researchers. “Advertisements, although independently aversive, disrupt this adaptation process and can therefore make the overall experience more enjoyable.”
So, if you are watching a rotten programme, it becomes more endurable when interspersed with some rotten ads. That, at any rate, is one interpretation of the findings. The researchers prefer to stress the positive aspects. In particular, they suggest Hollywood producers are mistaken in believing that the best way to watch their programmes is on DVD, free from the interruption of ads. Au contraire, says the School of Business, in addition to the adaptation effect, there are other reasons why commercials enhance the enjoyment of viewers. “A disruption in a suspenseful plot line might heighten anticipation and intensify its subsequent resolution,” says the study. “Similarly, commercials may offer opportunities to elaborate on what viewers have watched so far or to savour what is still to come.”
None of this touches on the critical question for advertisers: namely, do the commercials shift product? That, of course, is left to a different kind of research altogether. But the business school maintains that its study has implications for advertising effectiveness. Ads, they say, should, where possible, strike a sympathetic note with the content of the programme.
The report adds, with more than a touch of the blindingly obvious, “Sometimes, commercials don’t make TV more enjoyable – for instance, if the tone of the ad clashes with the tone of the show – and those times can skew viewers’ impressions of ads in general.”
Speaking for myself, I find all ads intrusive and most inane. But I have to concede that there are many programmes on ITV which are best interrupted, if only to provide some form of relief. If the ads are themselves irritating, there is always either the mute button or a silent scream.
One of the more unbearable features of these recessionary times is the lack of variety in TV ads. Fewer advertisers are buying time, with the result that those who are become infinitely tiresome with repetition. If, as NYU Stern’s researchers assert, pleasurable experiences pall with repetition, what must be the effect of unpleasant experiences, such as watching a comparison site ad for the umpteenth time? There was a time, believe me, when some TV ads were enjoyable and entertaining in their own right. Today, they are uniformly asinine. One, however, is at least honest. It’s an ad for a car – I couldn’t say which model – featuring a cityscape that has somehow become whitewashed. As the inhabitants emerge blinking and doltish into this new vista of albino buildings and streets, a female voiceover chants melodically, “Dung, dung, dung, dung”. Whether the sentiment describes the ad, its concept, its execution or the product itself, there is no faulting its accuracy. And yes, in a strange way, it enhances the programmes it interrupts.