Blog: Time to clean up the ad clutter

ACA's Judy Davey offers marketers tips to improve the effectiveness of their media spend in the digital age.

By: Judy Davey

Everybody is in violent agreement that clutter is bad. 

It’s not a new problem, either. Studies going back decades show that clutter has a negative impact on advertising recall.

For instance, in 1996, the 60th anniversary issue of Consumer Reports actually listed “commercial clutter” as one of six issues that “should take center stage on the National Agenda.” The National Agenda that’s huge. Two decades later, the issue certainly hasn’t gone away.

Consider that in 1995, Essentials of Contemporary Advertising authors Courtland L. Bovee and William Arens claimed the average American was exposed to 500 ads per day. A decade later, J. Walker Smith, then-president of market research firm Yankelovich, reckoned the number was up to more than 5,000 per day. Certainly this refers to exposures and not ads recalled or retained and this number will obviously vary, depending on where you live and your media consumption habits. But whether or not it is spot-on, the reality is we are reaching a tipping point. The boiling frog is almost dead.

There is no denying it, clutter is destructive. Here at the ACA from the 1990s to 2009 we were strong and regular advocates before the CRTC, maintaining that it should not bow to Canadian broadcasters’ request to increase the permitted length of commercial breaks from 12-minutes per hour to an unlimited amount. The broadcasters wanted to mirror ad-break lengths in the U.S., but we had evidence that increasing the number of commercials led to decreased awareness. Unfortunately, effective Sept. 1, 2009, the CRTC removed all ad restrictions on conventional TV and the proliferation of ads continued.

It is of paramount importance that we respect our consumers and earn their approval when we advertise to them. Consumers’ response to too many ads is simply to tune them out. In 2012, Admap published an article showing differences in recall of ads shown in the U.S. and Belgium across three mediums. Recall for TV was fairly equal, while recall for online was significantly and statistically higher in Belgium. At the time, online spend in the U.S. was 17% but only 4% in Belgium. During the 30-minute study, 28 ads were shown in the U.S. and fewer than 10 in Belgium. The difference, I believe, can be attributed to clutter.

If we all know clutter is bad, why then does the industry continue to fuel the fire?

We all want to be successful and work hard to understand and improve ROI, but with advertiser budgets stretched, agency profits dwindling and media companies struggling to maintain profits, it is challenging. Media companies offer up more inventory or introduce new ways to communicate, like native or branded content. Advertisers shorten ad lengths or sizes. Agencies place broadcast and digital in more “cost-effective inventory,” at times dangerously increasing frequency. In a quest to maintain efficiency, we move investments to cheaper (not necessarily more effective) mediums. In doing so we collectively continue to contribute to the problem. This needs to stop.

The situation is amplified on digital, especially with the increased proliferation of programmatic. The problem is growing, not abating. Recently, we conducted an experiment. Looking for a new recipe for shortcake, we went to a popular food site to search. In the course of two minutes we were exposed to 15 ads from eight advertisers (including one advertiser whose ads were served seven times!) while scrolling down the page. We left the site and returned and this time, in one minute of viewing, we were confronted with 12 ads from six advertisers, with the same ad from one advertiser shown five times. Additionally, competitive ads were seen on the same screen simultaneously – something that does not happen in other mediums.

This excessive frequency isn’t specific to ads on websites. Tune in to many digital TV networks and often, over a short time period, you will see the same ad over and over again. But looking at campaign metrics the overall CPM is really low – so it’s good, right? Not so much.

Given all the clutter, consumers are getting really good at avoiding or ignoring ads on their own. Last month, Digiday reported that 70% of Snapchat consumers had left by the three-second mark.

On top of that, savvy consumer-blockage technology is here, with the advent of Adblockers providing yet another way of avoiding ads. According to the 2015 PageFair Adobe study in June 2015, there were 198 million people using adblockers.

While they didn’t reference Canada in their latest study, the 2014 edition had 19.6% of Canadians using adblockers. If we take the 48% growth rate the U.S. experienced year-over-year, that would put present-day Canadian users at 29%. Adblocking is forecast to cost the global economy a staggering U.S. $21.8 billion.

Fixing this issue will take an industry-wide effort but here are three steps advertisers can take, right now, to start reducing clutter.

  • You invest a significant amount of money in creating ads and purchasing media but when budgets get tight, often research is one of the first things to get cut. Be cautious about dropping your tracking investments and consider investing more into measuring receptivity.
  • Actively follow your campaigns. Be active with all the media you are using to target your consumer, use the technology your consumer uses and be intimate with where your ads are running. If your spot has too much frequency, or poor positioning, speak up.
  • Be knowledgeable about what each individual medium’s advertising-to-editorial ratios are. Be selective about positioning in your ad investments, whether in pods, on pages or elsewhere. Seek out or create less-cluttered environments.

A recent Video on Demand study by Canadian broadcasters (see graph below) showed that when only a few ads and promos were broadcast within a program, the minute-by-minute audience remained fairly constant. That’s significant for how it differs to the traditional dips seen when commercials run in a full load TV show. Just more proof that a less cluttered environment is more effective. For me, that’s worth more.

judy davey 5

Judy Davey is VP, the Association of Canadian Advertisers. 

Updated: 12:50 p.m.