CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/AD AVOIDERS - Switch-over culture becomes more entrenched against ads/Ad avoidance is common here but worse in Europe Richard Cook investigates.

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.

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

like minutage.’

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

the UK.

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

once more.’