Commercial ratings will bring some transparency to how many people turn over or off when ads come on. That will put greater onus on the networks to retain viewers throughout commercial breaks, whether by running the most engaging ads first or even reducing the lengths of commercial pods. Ads that fail to retain audiences likely will be punished, either with higher spot tariffs or placement near the end of commercial breaks.
"Going forward, what it does is throw a spotlight on the creative. We know some commercials don't perform," said Alan Wurtzel, president-research and media development, NBC Universal. "How it gets played out? I don't know. It's a double-edged sword for people. Creative can be held accountable. You have to be careful what you wish for."
Pressure on agencies
"No doubt this will put pressure on clients and agencies," said Bill Duggan, exec VP-committees at the Association of National Advertisers.
The approach of commercial ratings has sent all parties scrambling to develop strategies to persuade consumers to pay attention to advertising. But it's the marketers who could be tasked to come up with more engaging ads should the industry move to either brand-specific commercial ratings or second-by-second data as opposed to the average commercial ratings Nielsen Media Research is scheduled to roll out on May 31.
Though no one is entirely sure what will be on the table at this year's upfront, commercial ratings are changing people's mind-sets.
"The use of commercial ratings is a starting point relating to advertisers actually getting what they paid for," said Ed Gold, advertising director for State Farm Insurance, in an e-mail interview. What he hopes to discover through commercial ratings is whether people are tuning out his brand's ads or just all ads in general. "Depending on the answer to that question, advertisers may then have to work on their brand's creative to make it more engaging or work with the TV networks and stations to make the advertising time we are paying a lot of money for less avoidable."
ANA TV committee
Andy Jung, senior director-advertising and media services at Kellogg Co., is part of ANA's TV committee, which has asked for brand-specific commercial ratings. Marketers all along have said what they really want to know is how their particular ads did in drawing eyeballs. But once they can track that, it may force some changes in the kinds of commercials they use. "The more we understand how commercials work in programming, the more entertaining they'll be and the more the consumer will understand them," Mr. Jung said as part of a panel at the ANA's TV Forum in New York last week.
Last spring, ANA members were surveyed and a poll found that 96% of respondents were interested in having commercial ratings readily and easily available. In that same survey, 84% expressed interest in having commercial ratings become the currency by which TV time is bought and sold. While the ANA TV committee acknowledges that the step toward providing an average rating for all commercials in a TV program is useful, marketers want to get their hands on even more granular data -- or brand-specific ratings -- so they can see how their own ads performed.
In a position paper this month, the ANA TV committee advocated brand-specific ratings because they would "identify the stronger and weaker executions within a commercial pool, enabling advertisers to pull (or fix) weaker spots and heavy up on stronger ones." The paper also noted that such a rating system would help evaluate commercial wear out and provide a better understanding of how factors such as pod position, length of creative and national vs. local placement play into the effectiveness of a campaign. With so much emphasis on the actual content of ads, creative shops will have to be prepared to answer some tough questions and quickly change course.
More relevant creative
"I don't think it would be any more pressure on us, just another measurement against success," said Kevin Moehlenkamp, chief creative officer at Hill Holiday in Boston. "You have to move the needle in terms of awareness. The days of running an ad and checking the box were over a while ago. We're already so in tune to whipping ourselves and having the clients whipping at us, I don't think it will change anything. This is an opportunity to be more relevant with the creative."
But with average program ratings the current method of measurement Nielsen will roll out this summer, the role of the networks cannot be overlooked. "Historically, much of the dialogue has been focused on the delivery system, which is the networks," said John Miles, director of investments for Mediacom. "As stakeholders push commercial ratings as a more precise measurement of viewers to commercials, networks will have to focus more intently on show formatting, in addition to program content. Making them accountable for commercial ratings will sharpen efforts to schedule and format pod breaks that hold up to program levels."
ABC gave momentum to the concept last week when Mike Shaw, the network's president of ad sales and marketing, announced plans to make commercials part of the programming via pop-up like interstitials that would air throughout shows such as "Ugly Betty" and "According To Jim." NBC, meanwhile, is readying its own engagement metric, "total audience measurement," to track online and TV viewing.
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Claire Atkinson contributed to this report.