Who’s Watching? Nearly a Third of TV Ads Play to Empty Rooms

Paying thousands of dollars to advertise on television is a huge proposition – never more so than for the Super Bowl, for which 30-second TV spots this year will cost advertisers as much as $6.5 million. Contrary to Super Bowl advertisements, which are some of the most high-profile commercials, new Cornell University research shows nearly a third of TV ads play to empty rooms.

Advertising pricing relies on measuring how many TVs are tuned in to a specific channel, and not whether people are actually watching the TVs.

“We wanted to quantify whether the current industry standard is doing a good job predicting what advertisers care about,” said lead author Jura Liaukonyte, associate professor in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

For this research, the co-authors worked with TVision Insights, a TV performance metrics company that developed innovative technology to passively monitor who’s in the room and whether they’re actually looking at what’s on the TV screen, while respecting viewer privacy.The research analyzed 4 million ad exposures over the course of a year.

Their findings – including the fact that nearly a third of TV ads play to empty rooms, and that viewers are four times more likely to leave the room than change the channel – are detailed in “How Viewer Tuning, Presence and Attention Respond to Ad Content and Predict Brand Search Lift,” which published February 9 in Marketing Science.

Among other results, the team found that ad viewing behaviors vary depending on channel, time of day, program genre, age and gender. For example, older viewers are more likely to avoid ads by changing channels; younger viewers are more likely to avoid ads by leaving the room or diverting their visual attention – likely due to multitasking with a second screen.

Additionally, ads for recreational products – beer and video games, for example – do the best at retaining viewers, the researchers said. Among the worst at keeping eyes on the screen are prescription drug ads, particularly those for serious conditions.

The Super Bowl, of course, is a different animal from every other show in the TV ad realm, the researchers said.

“It has become sort of like the Oscars for the advertising industry,” Liaukonyte said.

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