The necessity of TV ads

by Rob Horning

15 January 2009


The AdFreak blog noted a report in the Journal of Consumer Research that the TV viewing experience is enhanced with interruptions. Here’s the abstract (since the paper itself is gated. Grr.):

Consumers prefer to watch television programs without commercials. Yet, in spite of most consumers’ extensive experience with watching television, we propose that commercial interruptions can actually improve the television-viewing experience. Although consumers do not foresee it, their enjoyment diminishes over time. Commercial interruptions can disrupt this adaptation process and restore the intensity of consumers’ enjoyment. Six studies demonstrate that, although people preferred to avoid commercial interruptions, these interruptions actually made programs more enjoyable (study 1), regardless of the quality of the commercial (study 2), even when controlling for the mere presence of the ads (study 3), and regardless of the nature of the interruption (study 4).

The idea is that the commercials give viewers a pause to refresh their eagerness for the program when it resumes. In other words, the commercials break a program into smaller episodes, and these 11-minute chunks are what we consume. We can’t handle too long a stretch of the pleasure a show gives; we need to be brought back down off that How I Met Your Mother high with a few commercials, so we can enjoy the build-up of pleasure again. Otherwise, the shows reach a plateau at which they can no longer top themselves, and we grow bored, waiting for a bigger bang. Supposedly we are inherently dissatisfied, because we adapt over time to the pleasure being provided, and always demand one more unit of it. (This is part of the hedonic treadmill hypothesis.) Here’s how Ars Technica sums up the adaptation problem:

Extended exposure to anything, even very enjoyable experiences, leads people to adjust to them—basically, good becomes the new normal. For complicated situations, like winning a lottery, this process can take some time, but it’s possible for it to happen in the short-term, as well, which might make it applicable to TV shows. By disrupting that adaptation process, commercial breaks can keep an appreciation of the novelty of a program alive for longer.

I wonder if causality isn’t reversible here—the commercial breaks train us to expect more novelty at shorter intervals rather than allowing us to become absorbed and develop a level of concentration required for aesthetic engagement.

The study’s findings fit well with assumptions that the human attention span is shrinking, since it presumes that we constantly need pauses to refresh it, to reconstitute it in such a way that we can derive pleasure from our passivity and from shallow surface-level appreciation. This attention-span shrinkage is a fortuitous accomplishment for marketers. Back in the day, only one intermission was deemed socially necessary for three hours of entertainment.  But by the lights of this study, presumably we’d enjoy some more commercial breaks in films—why not break up that tedious and tiring Seven Samurai with a few Miller Lite commercials, a few spots for Rice-a-Roni? Maybe soon all “shows” will be the length of a YouTube clip, leaving more opportunity for commercial refreshment.

(My scare-quote deployment reminds me to recommend this awesome essay about scare quotes in the TNR.)

Before I read the study’s abstract, I expected the logic behind it to have something to do with the way TV shows are written to be consumed in small doses; that the commercial breaks are structured into the shows, which are designed to be disrupted. This is obvious when watching old shows on DVD. It’s clear certain moments are supposed to linger through the laundry detergent ads. And if I watch several episodes in a row, ignoring the buffer of several days’ time that each episode would have had when it originally aired, my sense of time gets curiously distended. I start to feel like one of those space-folders floating in spice gas in Dune. This seems to me a highly suggistible state, a sort of hypnogogic fugue.

While no one admits to enjoying commercials, they do help create an atmosphere appropriate to culture consumption—they flatter us into a state of self-importance by conveying a sense that our every decision is important, or they nanny us into a profound sense of insecurity. Both of these states make us receptive to more messages; whether they act as irritants or tranquilizers, ads help prepare the ground for our emotional responses to bloom in response to the actual programs. Ads also deploy a free-associative logic that has more to do with imagination than depicting reality; it suggests we should not be hung up on reason and plausibility, and take our laughs where we find them. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter if we like ads; they still condition how we consume the medium that they support, and in that sense they will feel necessary even if we succeed in excluding them. Since they are so instrumental in the programs’ being made in the first place, they continue to haunt programming even when we use DVRs to banish them. And that haunting is instrumental in the war on our attention span; we crave the ad breaks, even if we don’t want the ads themselves.

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