Do You Know Where Your Commercials Are?

Despite Advanced Tech, Marketers Seem to Have Little Idea Where Their Ads Actually Appear

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Brian Steinberg
Brian Steinberg
My ad ran where?

Why is it that advertisers spend billions on TV advertising every year and yet never seem to know exactly where it is their commercials run?

This question isn't a new one, but we're still a little surprised that it continues to come up, particularly given how much easier new digital technology makes it to track responses to all sorts of commercials.

In reporting our Monday story looking at how Spike has been running ad breaks lasting anywhere from six to 10 minutes long, one particular bell kept sounding: Many advertisers whose commercials were being plopped into these marathon ad breaks had little if any idea this was taking place. Indeed, Spike told us they had received little complaint from marketers until Ad Age started making calls.

Tighter grasp?
You'd think in an era when marketers say they're watching every penny of their ad spend -- not to mention devoting more attention to so-called commercial ratings that measure the success of ad breaks that keep viewers from turning away from the TV set -- they would know where their precious million-dollar commercials were appearing. But that's still not the case.

In reporting the story, we called Burger King. A single ad from the fast-food giant ran multiple times over the course of a single evening on Spike -- a practice that many ad buyers will tell you can lead to a condition known as "commercial wear-out" in which viewers get so burned out on the ad they stop listening to what it says. Yet Burger King declined to comment on what it thought about the ad placement. (To be fair, the company was in the midst of being purchased by a private-equity fund.)

We also called Allstate, which also had an ad run during some of Spike's longer ad breaks in "Entourage." A spokesman initially suggested to us that the company believed we had misunderstood what we saw, even though we had recorded two weeks' worth of "Entourage" programming on a DVR.

Here's the problem: Most advertisers don't buy their own commercial time. They contract to an ad-buying firm to do it for them.

Ad-buying 101
The ad-buying firm typically uses its marketplace leverage -- created by amassing a lot of buying power by winning as many ad-buying contracts from as many large advertisers as possible -- to buy ad time for the best prices possible. And the ads get spread out across a bigger package of ad inventory the ad-buying firm cobbles together on behalf of the client.

So Advertiser X or Advertiser Z may know that its ads are slated to run on Spike or HGTV or ABC, but they don't necessarily know exactly where on the schedule those ads are supposed to pop up. Which is why you get a lot of "Huh?" when you call Advertiser X or Advertiser Z and ask them if they were comfortable with ads appearing right after a scene on CW's "90210" in which a male character receives oral sex (it happened in the show's series' debut) or if they appreciated being one of around 20 different advertisers appearing in a massive ad break on Spike TV.

There may be things an advertiser can do: Like placing more emphasis on buying specific shows, rather than network schedules. That's a concept that has been the subject of much chatter in the past. But it's an idea that remains tough to put into practice, because TV networks would much rather have marketers spread the wealth among high-rated and low-rated shows alike. Or push for marrying data from TV viewing and online viewing of TV shows. With the CW offering combined TV-online packages this year, perhaps there's some fertile ground to be tilled.

This sort of stuff happens online, too. Some advertisers register with various ad networks, and have ads served on websites they might not have normally signed up to support. With the media world fracturing into all kinds of different methods for consuming entertainment and information, however, you'd think marketers would want to keep a tighter grip on where their commercials showed up. Because at some point "Huh?" or "I wasn't aware our commercials were running there" no longer sound like reasonable excuses and, instead, look like signals that marketers can't be bothered to delve more finely into the commercial time they decided to buy.

Brian Steinberg is television editor at Advertising Age and has followed the media and ad industries since 1998. Follow him on Twitter at @bristei.
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