Why TV advertising sucks less than digital

by Nigel Hollis | January 06, 2016

Duncan Southgate, our Global Brand Director for all things Digital at Millward Brown, thinks I spend far too much time dissing digital advertising. In a recent email to me he wrote, “I don’t see us writing articles about how TV ads suck.” OK, Duncan, let’s see where that comment takes us.

Let’s agree on the basics; no normal person welcomes advertising into their life unless it offers them something worthwhile. The reason I diss digital advertising and not TV, is because the former violates this basic principle of value exchange more often than the latter. It’s a given that advertising is necessary to support free content, but the established model of inserting TV advertising into content is more graceful (and more consistent) than many of the digital forms.


As with all things it is a matter of relativities. From a creative content perspective, some TV ads suck more than others. The same is true of digital advertising. There is little evidence that digital creative is worse than TV creative. As far as I can see from our data, the essential difference between TV and digital is that TV sucks less because its delivery is more carefully controlled (even if that control varies by country). There are a set number of ads shown and the ad breaks are ’engineered’ in a way that fits the content being shown. They may leave you eager to get back to the action, but the break tends to build anticipation more than irritation.

Now let’s switch over to the insertion of digital video into content, where the way that advertising is inserted differs dramatically, and ads often ambush the recipient unexpectedly. The worst example I have come across is on PBS, where ads are inserted into content without any consideration for the content flow. The switch between content and ad is instantaneous. One minute you are watching Endgame, and the next second, bam! It’s that blasted ad for European cruises again – how many times do I have to see the same aerial shots of Budapest and the Danube? Writing this post finally forced me to remember that the ad is for Viking River Cruises but, even if I had been inclined to take a cruise I am less likely than ever to choose them because I now associate negative emotions with that brand.

Then there is the inRead video It is bad enough when the sound is off, but now many sites seem to think that it is acceptable to start the video with the sound on. By now most people know they can scroll past the ad and it will disappear, but it is still an interruptive experience on a par with the now old school pop-up.

In his email to me Duncan pointed out that skippable pre-rolls are more popular than TV ads, and inferred that if all digital ads were skippable digital advertising would be better received than TV. That might be true, but I suspect that people like skippable videos precisely because they do not have to waste extra time watching them. If all ads were skippable, then advertisers would have to pay far more time and attention to ensuring that the first few seconds encouraged people to watch, and not just skip instinctively.

Anything that interrupts what you are doing is a pain but some things are more painful than others, and I believe that digital advertising is just getting too painful for many. What do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Missing user, January 17, 2016

    Mike, excellent point. Yes, all the research we do on the topic shows that the mobile phone is the most personal device and the one people interact with most.

    Yes, we should view all interactions through the lens of how the brain works and I think that the crowded digital environment forces people into a more instinctive than reflective mode. Brands need to understand what will cue interest best in a display ad, in the first seconds of a pre-roll, etc.

  2. Mike Bainbridge, January 13, 2016

    Also is there any mileage in the fact that the devices are different ? By different I mean some are "shared" (in home TV's e.g ) but my smartphone is me only (it has my email and SMS, my contacts and Chats - its a more personal device , its the link to my network ... its a private space) So when a brand  is "invading" that space even though I am browsing,   isn't this context going to deliver a different response ?

    Another question, maybe the subject of another topic but shouldn't be view all types of impressions or call to action through the prism of how the brain works ?

  3. Nigel, January 08, 2016

    Thanks for starting the New Year off with some good commentary. 

    Narayanee, I am interested in your concept of "not just a media but a medium of existence" can you elaborate? Is it that digital is now an integral part of our lives, always on, whereas TV is clearly defined, on or off?

    Bjorn, I do agree that TV is in general more passive but AdReaction Video found that on-demand TV was more like digital. People seem to resent advertising more when they have chosen the content directly rather than joining in a pre-determined flow of content.

    Mark, I think the industry needs to find a happy medium otherwise the audience is going to do everything it can to avoid the over-saturated areas of the web and may be forced to decide what it really values. (Totally agree re Netflix being tired by the way.)

    Duncan, thank you, I thought you were going to refuse to respond. All good points with the exception of the comment about ads in the Facebook newsfeed. When I logged onto Facebook this morning I scanned my feed and was exposed to several ads in the space of seconds. I was forced to separate relevant (friends posts) from irrelevant (ads - I have yet to see anything compelling in my news feed). I think there is a big difference between that and seeing a collection of ads at set intervals with the option to walk away till the content you want comes back on. 

  4. Duncan Southgate, January 08, 2016

    Why do I always rise to your bait?  Anyway, rather than take us further down a rabbit hole, maybe it’s worth clarifying the intent behind my comment? It’s not that I want to say TV ads suck.  We have strong evidence (from tracking and CrossMedia studies) that TV ads continue to work well at building brands and delivering a strong return on investment. But TV ads are less good and less cost effective than online at reaching certain audiences and building lower funnel brand metrics beyond awareness. So advertisers need both.  And they need to work to optimise both.   We agree that people are generally resistant to but ultimately accepting of ads. We agree that creative can be good or bad. I assume we also agree that poor implementation can ruin the best of advertising formats (your Viking River Cruises digital example could be mirrored by many heavy frequency, poorly targeted TV campaigns).   I’m not sure a 3 minute TV interruption builds more anticipation than irritation, but I do believe your hypothesis that the consistency of TV ad formats goes some way to helping shape people’s acceptance of TV advertising. That may well be something where the online industry could still learn from TV and other media. Industries bodies such as the IAB and MMA obviously strive to promote online and mobile best practice through format standardisation and rationalisation. But digital’s constant search for something new and different may occasionally be undermining some of the good work that’s being done.   I don’t believe online generally has an excessive advertising to content ratio.  TV: 6-15 mins of TV ads per hour = 10-25% Facebook:  typically one sponsored post every 10-12 posts = 8-10%. So I do believe that the worst formats and a few ad-heavy sites are giving digital a bad name.   Therefore online advertisers and publishers do need to work together to reduce the use of invasive ad formats. To counter the rise of ad blocking software, the industry may well need to reduce clutter and generally take receptivity and user acceptance much more seriously. Online advertisers do need to adapt their creative approaches for these formats (non-adapted TV creative probably isn’t helping digital’s receptivity issues). They also need to use online targeting wisely, not over-stepping boundaries.   So there are plenty of ways that online and mobile ads can be adapted to work even better/ suck less into 2016 and beyond. As addressable TV advertising becomes a reality, let’s hope that better targeting can make TV ads even better/ suck less too.

  5. Mark Russell, January 08, 2016

    Hi Nigel,

    Great article. I've had the same pbs.com clumsy ad-placement experience watching Downton Abbey online. Is it ironic that PBS has this problem with clumsily placed advertising on their internet feed given they are an essentially advertising-free, user-supported broadcaster? There are no ads within the program when you watch it over-the-air.  Perhaps they just don't understand how this advertising thing works.

    I'm fascinated by all the debating put forward by internet evangelists about how video online is better, people don't want ads, ads must be skippable, etc., etc. Who do they think is going to pay for the content if not advertisers? If given a choice of paying for content, or finding a way to bootleg it for free, I don't know a single millennial who would pay. And if given a choice between paying $10 a month or getting something for free with a few carefully placed ads in it, the free choice will win. This is a concept that has been proven over and over - why fight it?

    The HBO argument is often advanced to show that people will pay for great content themselves and ads are not necessary. But HBO is only one of many networks - most survive on advertising. Once advertising is completely removed from the picture we will be left watching content created by punks with a GoPro, and half a century's worth of 'TV' shows currently contained on the already tired Netflix.

    I hope this plays out quickly because I'm waiting for something to happen that makes sense.


    Mark Russell

  6. Bjørn Dahl, January 07, 2016

    Hi Nigel.

    I’m thinking that TV is consumed in a more passive (entertainable) mode, where the viewer is more receptive for (entertaining) advertising - whilst digital display, much like traditional print advertising, is consumed in an more active (information seeking) mode – where the viewer is seeking specific content, and therefore is more interrupted by ever more intrusive advertising? So as the share of print advertising is declining and the share of digital advertising is increasing, digital is taking the role of print advertising. The difference, of course, is that where you barely notice print advertising you have already been exposed for, considered and discarded - some digital ad formats keeps on demanding your attention?

  7. Narayanee Viswanathan, January 07, 2016

    Fabulous article and really valid points.

    TV in many countries plays the entertainer role, one that offers variety and re-airs content. Many of us also understand the modus operandi of the medium and we have accepted advertising or pay premium to opt out.

    Online is not just a media but also a medium of existence - people know that to access this means paying fees. Advertising till now has not contributed anything substantial in the evolution or content here.  I believe having strong ground rules on where to advertise and how to interrupt will help.

  8. Nigel, January 06, 2016

    Hi Guy,

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, familiarity has a part to play, but we've had digital ads a long time now. I don't think that argument holds water when you think about it. For instance, I have trained myself not to look at ads online just like I have trained myself not to get distracted by the ticker tape at the bottom of the TV screen. Now it is instinctive. Don't look there. Where's the X? I am sure there are Zs and Millennials who are far better trained then I am.

    Having thought about this a bit more I believe that there are a couple of other factors at work. Most TV advertising is sequential the ads do not compete for your attention at the same time on different parts of the screen. The other thing is that in most countries the amount of TV advertising is limited (OK, the USA just has a guideline). We know that less ads on TV means more ad awareness per GRP so I am betting the same applies online.

  9. Guy Powell, January 06, 2016


    I agree that TV can be considered less interruptive than digital, but that's possibly because it's been around longer and we've all been trained to expect the commercial in the format it's been given.  There are new TV ad formats that are now more disruptive and cant' be easily blocked/skipped with the DVR and those are the popups that show across the bottom of the screen.  but it is all relative as you suggest.

    On the other hand I also love the shots of Budapest and the Danube, but agree.  I hate the ad after the 500th viewing.  And in digital, marketers seem to think that the more interruptive the better.  Unfortunately for all marketers, the ad blocker installed base will continue to build and worse yet, it doesn't ever go away. Who in their right mind will get rid of their ad blocker once installed.  So all those sins of disruptive ads from the advertising industry will accumulate to where very few are actually viewing a digital ad. The viewers just disappear from the publishers revenue opportunity. 

    In my mind, then, what is going to happen is that for TV, live events, e.g., sports, will become sought after.  Also, product placement, because it's very difficult to skip over these.  For Digital, there are a few battles to be fought where publishers will force viewers to disable their adblocker to view the free content. 

    It will be an interesting ride.  I have some more thoughts on this at http://www.prorelevant.com/the-marketing-calculator-blog/



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