How to Stop Them From Skipping: TiVo Tells All

Data Show Direct-Response Ads Hold Their Own in DVR Homes

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Can advertisers craft TV ads that will make viewers less eager to zap through them with a digital-video recorder? New data from TiVo seem to indicate two approaches that keep viewers' fingers off the fast forward are at opposite ends of the spectrum: either a bare-bones, direct-response model or the entertaining, high-production-value approach of movie ads.
Todd Juenger, VP-general manager of TiVo Audience Research and Management
Todd Juenger, VP-general manager of TiVo Audience Research and Management

TiVo's StopWatch data, available since February and used by Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA and Interpublic Group, analyze second-by-second viewership patterns by an anonymous, aggregated and random sample of 20,000 TiVo units. Two months of the data -- the first time the TiVo information has been released publicly -- show that some of the least fast-forwarded ad campaigns (that include at least 20 airings of an ad) were also among Madison Avenue's least entrancing: direct-response commercials. Direct-response ads for sporting goods, exercise equipment and Air Hogs toys, for example, were among the four least-fast-forwarded campaigns in April. Meanwhile, in May, among ads airing in prime time on broadcast networks, three of the top 10 ads were for movies, which usually consist of the most entertaining and eye-catching scenes from a coming release.

TiVo throws down
The increasing availability of such data illustrates the intense scrutiny being placed on the venerable 30-second commercial. Companies including Nielsen, TiVo and TNS Media Research all offer increasingly granular data about commercial performance, and marketers and TV networks already have agreed in large part to base their ad deals on Nielsen's new commercial-ratings data for the coming TV season. What this all means is that ads will be put under the microscope as never before -- and as TiVo's new data point out, some long-held assumptions about what ads stand out may be put to the test.

"This is really about knowing the individual commercial" and how it performs in each appearance, said Tracey Scheppach, senior VP-video innovations director at Starcom USA.

Because the TiVo data are relatively new, it's too early to draw strong, sustainable conclusions, said Todd Juenger, VP-general manager of TiVo Audience Research and Management. The data do have limitations; they aren't broken down by viewer demographics, for instance. But their scattershot nature points to the notion that there are no obvious winning strategies when it comes to creating standout work for TV, which remains the best way to reach mass audiences.

Popular commercials not during popular shows
Even ads placed in the most popular prime-time program can't thwart an individual's desire to push the fast-forward button. TiVo's data shows that in April and May, some of the highest-rated commercials appeared in programs that were not among the top 10 most viewed for either month (to be fair, most of these ads still ran in hit shows such as "House," "Grey's Anatomy" and "American Idol").
Most watched
Least-fast-forwarded brand campaigns on 15 measured broadcast and cable networks, daytime and prime time, April 2007:
  1. AlmostGolf sporting goods (direct response)
  2. Perfect Pushup exercise equipment (direct response)
  3. Microsoft Office business software
  4. Air Hogs toys (direct response)
  5. Cub Cadet tractor
Source: TiVo StopWatch

Another idea on how to avoid ad skipping making the rounds is to try to get an ad in the last slot of a pod, since DVR viewers tend to stop fast-forwarding so as to not miss the beginning of the show. But even winning more advantageous placement within a commercial pod isn't necessarily a winning strategy, Mr. Juenger said. Very few of the least-fast-forwarded campaigns in April or May had a high percentage of spots that ran either first or last in a particular pod or commercial break, he said, with the majority enjoying only a normal distribution of commercial slots.

Financial-services and direct-response ads worked well, Mr. Juenger suggested, because they can be easily understood by consumers in the market for the particular product being advertised. "I'm sure creative has an important role, but it's the relevance of the message to the audience" that could be the deciding factor, he said. "If you're not interested in a home gym, I could see why you would just zap through that. But if you are interested and you're about to plunk down $500, you will watch the whole thing."

Guessing game
But placing those ads across various TV channels, as is often done, means advertising has become more and more of a guessing game, with marketers hoping to connect to that small subset of individuals who are watching a particular show but in the market or interested in a specific advertisement. Thanks to new data, "what you really have here is a report card on every commercial," said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at Richards Group, an independent Dallas agency.

This kind of data is leading to several different reactions within the ad industry. Some media buyers are calling for longer commercials, while others expect a complete breakdown of the ways in which ads are placed and sold, so that advertisers can request specific placement of ads at particular moments -- and maybe pay a premium to do so. Others expect ad agencies to start to move in one of two directions: working to generate enough buzz so that consumers are eager to find out more about particular ads, or damping the hype and offering more bare-bones information, instead, much like paid-search ads online.

"Instead of trying to sell products, people are going to throw puppy dogs and babies and every cliché in there so people stay with the commercials," Mr. Berger said. "No one can even imagine what changes this is going to bring creatively."
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