Not everyone watches TV advertising

The 2022 NBA Finals averaged more than 12 millions viewers nightly, making it the most watched Finals since 2019. The Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics battled it out for six games before ultimately the onslaught of three pointers and drives to the basket from the Warriors’ Steph Curry was too much for the Celtics to overcome. During each TV timeout ads displaying everything from the new Brad Pitt movie, to shopping with American Express or finding lodging on grappled for viewers’ attention.

According to new research, 30% of  those TV ads were missed because viewers physically got up and left the room while the TV played during a commercial. What is more is that viewers are four times more likely to leave a room where the TV is playing a commercial than change the channel.

This is all according to recently published research by University of Delaware Professor Matthew McGranaghan


McGranaghan, assistant professor of marketing at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, co-wrote the article entitled “How Viewer Tuning, Presence, and Attention Respond to Ad Content and Predict Brand Search Lift,” which was published in Marketing Science. The article, which was published online in February, was co-written with Jura Liaukonyte of SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University and Kenneth Wilbur of the Rady School of Management at University of California, San Diego.

McGranaghan and his coauthors sought to examine how traditional tuning data compared with new TV viewing metrics. They also looked at how those new viewing metrics responded to ad content and if the new metrics predicted ad response better than traditional ones. They used TVision Insights, which created new technology to track TV performance metrics. The new technology can passively monitor human presence in a room while an ad is playing and if humans are present,  whether they are paying attention to the screen. 

“This research highlights the importance of knowing what your metrics are actually telling you,” McGranaghan said. “We’ve long had metrics about how many people are watching a given TV channel. These new metrics tell us something about how much attention people are paying to that channel.” He also said these new metrics may be valuable to advertisers who care about attention.

“In terms of how this will change the way advertisers do business with media companies, I think we’ll see a continued push towards better and better measurement — companies want to know exactly what they are buying and selling,” McGranaghan said.

It makes sense for advertisers to want to know more about their products’ impact. According to the market research company, eMarketer, TV ad spending will be more than $68 billion this year. It was $70 billion in 2019, but digital and online video ads are gaining market share. The Nielsen Company, which has been tracking audiences for decades with its technology, remains important to the industry, but coauthors said that TVision’s technology was complementary to Neilsen’s and was an additional tool for helping companies understand an audience’s value. 

The researchers examined 4 million advertising exposures. The sample size for their research included 1,155 households with 3,659 viewers. who used cameras, microphones and algorithms as part of the TVision system. TVision measured tuning, comparing television audio to a database of known programs, individual viewer presence, which used person-detection and facial recognition algorithms, and attention, which measured the co-occurrence of eyes open and eyes on screen inferences.  For content they measured ad metadata and machine-code content features for 6,650 frequent ad videos.

The researchers saw differences in ad viewing behavior according to factors such as channel, time of day, gender and age. Older viewers pay more attention to ads compared to younger people and McGranaghan said this is probably because younger people are more likely to be engaged with a second screen, such as a phone. Primetime viewers who watched TV between 8-11 p.m. Eastern time were more likely to tune away, meaning change the channel, but not leave the room. At the same time, primetime viewers are more likely to pay attention to ads, McGranaghan said, and this is because many people seem to think better content is available during these hours, which keeps eyes on the screen.

Tuning and attention were positively affected by recreational advertising. Consumers stayed to watch content that included things like hunting, fishing, casinos and gambling and also wine and alcohol. This also included travel and leisure activity. Negative effects for tuning and attention occurred with pharmaceutical advertising for prescription drugs. The more serious the condition, such as cancer, Alzheimers, depression, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease, the more people tuned away from the ad.

“Advertisers want to know who is watching their ads,” McGranaghan said. “Ad-selling platforms want to understand how much their audiences are worth. New audience measurement technologies, like those discussed in our paper, may help advertisers and ad-selling platforms better understand who is watching (or not watching) and how to value those audiences. Consequently, ad prices and the composition of advertisers may change.”

An example of how companies find research like this study helpful is the announcement by mass media and entertainment conglomerate Warner Media, LLC, in April that it will look at alternative measurements for advertising.

McGranaghan said companies like Warner Media should use multiple audience measures to better understand an audience’s value.

The NBA Finals don’t draw an audience anywhere near as large as the NFL’s Super Bowl, but the plethora of TV ads aired during the NBA Finals featured leisure activity, pharmaceuticals and recreation. For the millions who paid attention while they aired, companies like to know what stuck with them, and McGranaghan knows that.

“One of the great aspects of studying advertising is that the advertising environment is always changing, adapting to new media as well as consumer tastes,” McGranaghan said. “So long as our attention is valuable, companies will find creative ways to capture our attention, whether that be ads or something else.”

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Not everyone watches TV advertising


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