We are no longer as important as we think we are. We, the
advertising community, must try harder. The problem, it now transpires,
is simply this: what we are selling consumers are no longer buying.
In fact, if there is any consolation at all to be drawn from the results
last week from one of the most important on-going research projects in
advertising, it’s only that the situation in the UK isn’t yet as
completely disastrous as it is on the Continent.
It’s a pretty hollow consolation when you consider that, according to
the latest instalment of Lowe & Partners Worldwide’s Ad Avoiders
research, nearly half of all UK TV viewers still switch channels during
the ad break.
Lowes first identified the problem of ad avoiders following close
analysis of the BARB panel in 1995. Unfortunately, the more the agency
delved into the problem, the worse it appeared to be. It is not simply
the large percentage of people who actively take steps to miss the
commercial break, it’s that precisely the people who are statistically
most attractive to the advertisers are also the ones who are most likely
to go missing.
Although they are demographically flat, ad avoiders are the economically
active individuals in each of their demographic groups. They are 30 per
cent more likely to own a car, for instance, 18 per cent more likely to
take multiple holidays and 27 per cent more likely to take out a
personal pension plan.
The latest batch of Lowes’ research has expanded the study considerably
to include the major European markets of France, Germany, Italy and
More than merely confirming the UK’s findings, the new research suggests
that European consumers are even more energetic ad avoiders.
There is the same link between dull advertising and ad avoidance on the
Continent but, whereas in the UK around 50 per cent of viewers opt out
of advertising at least some of the time, in Germany the figure reaches
an amazing 68 per cent, while in both France and Italy it is comfortably
above 55 per cent.
’We think that the discrepancy can partly be explained by cultural
reasons, partly by structural reasons and partly by qualitative
reasons,’ Lowe Howard-Spink’s deputy chairman, John Lowery,
’I think it’s pretty evident that the German consumer likes being sold
to less than we do, while in France the existence of chunks of
advertising of up to nine minutes, clearly signposted to viewers, is
encouraging them to skirt round what is in effect a commercial ghetto.
It’s interesting that France is now looking to restrict advertising
minutage to help get round this problem.’
The report doesn’t claim to establish a causal link between advertising
enjoyment and better recall across major European markets, or a lack of
enjoyment and higher levels of ad avoidance, but the evidence it
presents points firmly in that direction.
Unfortunately, if true, this has the consequence that advertisers cannot
hide behind the excellence of their own creative product - the point is
that unless their commercial follows others of a similarly high standard
in any ad break, it might already be too late.
It’s certainly appears to be a powerful argument against increasing the
supply of TV airtime for advertisers and, indeed, has already brought
Lowes into conflict with advertisers who are looking to do just
’We collided with Lowes over versions one and two of this research,’ Bob
Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at the
Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, says. ’It’s not because
it’s a bad or ill-conceived piece of research; quite the opposite in
fact. It’s because, first of all, advertising is an inexact science and
a bastard art and second, because it is impossible to isolate the
advertising from other variable factors - what your competitors are
doing, how they are responding and with what offers and so on.
’You’ve always got to distrust research that people seize upon to
explain how advertising works. It’s not as simple as that. I don’t think
there is any one thing that causes avoidance, whether it is minutage or
whatever. Having said that, though, we will definitely be looking hard
at the new research and factoring it in to our thinking about issues
If all the research does is make advertisers and their agencies a little
more humble about the relationship they now enjoy with consumers that
can be no bad thing. The balkanisation of media outlets might only be
making consumer choices more catholic than they were in days gone
But Lowes’ research shows that more television choice is also helping
consumers avoid ads.
It’s not all depressing news, though. Things can be done provided
agencies maintain this humility toward the consumer. After all, the
survey found the relationship between consumers liking an ad and being
able to recall it was the same in Germany, France, Italy and Spain and
What has changed is the graph plotting the number of people who agree
with the statement, ’I enjoy the TV ads as much as the programme’. This
number actually increased yearly throughout the 80s, peaking at around
33 per cent in the UK in 1991. It has fallen every year since then. This
now has to be addressed.
’When BT did its interactive trial in Colchester, ads were confined to a
dedicated channel called Adland,’ Lowery says. ’In the first week 55 per
cent of households tuned in at some point. By week four that was down to
about 11 per cent, and it never got up to even 20 per cent in the next
25 weeks of the trial. Tim Delaney said that there would one day be a
channel which only shows commercials. The BT trial made that a
He concludes: ’The problem is that, as things stand, it’s a channel that
simply doesn’t attract consumers. We have to change this, and a good
place to start is by making our brands and their advertising likeable