Ad break? Tweet time? Give me a break!

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In years gone by, defending the worth of TV advertising was a simple brief that involved lots of long lunches and the occasional awards ceremony. In the brave new age of digital communications, however, it is no easy feat and much of the credit for the continued strength of TV as an advertising media must go to Tess Alps and her team at Thinkbox.

Late last year Thinkbox even attempted to bridge the divide between the old world and the new with a TV and Mobile event at the Soho Hotel in London. Among the speakers was media visionary Anthony Rose, formerly of BBC iPlayer fame and now co-founder of social viewing site Zeebox.

Among the many points Rose covered during his talk was an observation that because Twitter activity regularly spikes during ad breaks, the very definition of commercial advertising has changed. “They’re not called ad breaks any more,” he said. “They’re called tweet breaks.”

Tweet breaks? You’ll excuse me for a moment while I bite my fist in a Sonny Corleone-style gesture. Rose may well be a visionary when it comes to social media but please God keep him away from the marketing lexicon. ‘Tweet breaks’ wins my award for the biggest pile of bollocks for 2011 (and 2012 if he mentions it again).

To the credit of Thinkbox research chief Neil Mortensen, it was a point he also made in reviewing the event in his blog. While effusive in his praise of Rose’s presentation, Mortensen reminded his audience that Twitter is far from a universal audience activity and suggested that the media industry might need to “balance our collective excitement with some perspective”.

Last week, however, Mortensen was guilty of exactly the same lack of perspective when he blogged a very impressive chart showing five years of digital TV recorder penetration in the UK. It is no surprise that the proportion of British homes with the technology has grown from 5% to 50% over the intervening period.

Interestingly, however, the proportion of programmes watched in time-shift mode (i.e. recorded and watched later) remains flat at 15%.

Twitter

“Pretty obvious, isn’t it?” concluded Mortensen. Despite the impact of PVRs and DTVs – most people are still watching most of their TV live and therefore also watching, not zipping through, most of the ads.

Er, not so fast. While it’s clear more than 85% of British TV is being watched live, there is still a very big jump to get from that number to the proportion also watching the ads. Uncomfortable as it may be to accept, there is a very important leap to make between watching a chosen programme and staying tuned for the commercial messages that follow it.

Try it at home tonight. Sit back with friends or family and watch what happens when the ads come on. I did it for more than six months with video cameras in homes in the UK and later in Australia for a piece of academic research and the results will come as no surprise to anyone except marketers. Yes, some people do watch the ads. A few might even tweet something. But the vast majority do something entirely different instead.

In our research, the audience did occasionally watch advertising. On average, about 30% of the ads broadcast when a ‘viewer’ was in the room were watched. The rest of the time the audience gratefully used their four precious minutes of free time to talk to partners, mind the kids, do work, read a magazine, visit the toilet, make tea or (in one unexpected moment) make love on the sofa (until one of the pair remembered the cameras).

Unhelpfully, we also observed that as the audience size in many of the living rooms increased, the amount of social interaction also went up, while the number of people who actually watched the ad went down. Bigger programme audiences can often deliver smaller audiences for advertising.

And that’s why only stupid marketers and people who work at Thinkbox call it an ‘ad break’ and really believe that people spend it watching ads. It’s actually a programme break and it is probably the most active part of most people’s day. Rather than watch boring ads for products they don’t care about, people do something more urgent or interesting with the time that they have been allotted.

The people at Thinkbox are guilty of the sin of product orientation. Because they promote ads, they assume that this is what people do with their break time. Like the airline executive who sees a plane rather than a journey or the marketer who sees competitors rather than his customer’s alternatives, the truth can only be glimpsed when we tilt our marketing world on its axis and see things from a consumer’s point of view.

When we do that, we encounter unexpected, complicated and peculiar stuff because the world of the consumer has always been mightily more complex than the little plans and charts we use to devise the strategies aimed at influencing them.

So, I agree that tweet break is a loss of perspective. But calling it an ad break is equally bonkers.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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