Excessive frequency is not just a digital problem

by Nigel Hollis | January 23, 2017

Recent exposure to live TV over the New Year holiday reminded me that excessive ad exposure is not just an online phenomenon. There is something fundamentally wrong when the same ad airs ten times or more in the space of an hour. Maybe this excessive frequency is a phenomenon of lack of ad inventory or the practicalities of media buying or does it reflect a misplaced belief in the power of repetition?

Hosting a couple of 18 year olds for the weekend led to my first exposure to live TV for a long time. Once they had figured out how to stream the game to my TV screen, we watched the Dallas Cowboys play the Philadelphia Eagles. It soon became apparent that someone somewhere had not got the message that there is such a thing as too much frequency. There was one specific ad that was shown first in every ad break during the game. The ad itself was pretty innocuous, even vaguely amusing but after the first couple of viewing it began to grate on my nerves, by the tenth exposure I wanted to throw something at the TV. Worse still I was beginning to feel antagonistic toward the brand.


I suspect that this excessive frequency might have been the result of one of those arcane deals that are part of the U.S. media buying scene but, if not, what did the media buyer think they were doing? People have memories. You only need to refresh those memories periodically not ten times an hour. Kantar Millward Brown has found that the brand response to digital advertising does not improve if the ad is exposed more than ten times in 24 hours (and may decline if the initial response to the ad is negative) and I see no reason why it would be any different with TV.  If nothing else, I would suggest that this media strategy is a waste of money.

I know that brands and media buyers want to get their ads in front of live audiences, more attention and less skipping and all that (they might think differently if they watched my guests busy on their mobiles during the ad breaks) and sports coverage gets a lot of live viewing. AdAge reports that according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NFL games claimed 27 of the most-watched TV broadcasts in 2016 and the average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. But here is another well-established fact; more clutter, less impact. Kantar Millward Brown has found that there is a negative correlation between ad clutter and ad memorability across countries and demonstrated the same relationship over time within specific countries.

To my mind, the only real way to make sure your ad is going to be watched these days is to have great, compelling creative. How well you reach the audience is important, but without great content your ad budget will be wasted, no matter how many times you show the ad.

Repetition is necessary to ad effectiveness but only if it helps ensure the ideas conveyed by the ad enter long-term memory. I had to confirm with my friends which brand was being advertised during that American football match, and still have no idea what product was being featured. Could that ad still have some effect on my purchasing behavior? Personally I doubt it. If I had not decided to write this blog post, I would probably have forgotten the details of the ad and only been left with an instinctive negative response to the brand.

But what do you think? Why do media buys end up with the same ad multiple times an hour? Do you think it aids effectiveness? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Nigel, January 27, 2017
    Thanks, DB, yes, it is a dilemma (unless the person is incentivized to put the brand's interests first) and relates to Stephen's point, the structure of the media industry is rife with legacy structures that make little sense in a connected world and make cross media management that much more difficult. 
  2. DB, January 25, 2017
    Nigel - Agree that in more cases than not, they should not buy the package. So many of the sports deals are huge legacy deals. The media managers that inherit these deals are put in a tough situation. a) continue to do what the business does, and no-one will question you b) walk away from something the business has always done, and risk failure.
  3. Stephen White, EMM International, January 25, 2017

    In the stone ages of media planning,  before digital found its feet, Custom and Practice for repetition of media messages was based on a crude system (for Television) of having 80% coverage (reach) of your target audience with an average frequency of 4 OTS. This way of setting the right (optimum) level of communication (weight and frequency) has endured for the last 40 years but now the industry must be inclusive by providing frequency options that provide cover and frequency across all media that is able to communicate directly to individuals. Given the huge amount of interest in perfecting the right levels of repetition across all the media used by the advertiser, the media industry must insist on shared responses from advertisers in order to provide collective examples of the level of multi-messaging media that most clients now use. Multi hits, across a range of media, requires an industry wide point of view on the repetition of messages and their impact on real reach and frequency. Time for collective focus from the industry?

  4. Nigel, January 24, 2017

    OK, well that provoked more commentary than I expected! Thank you.

    Anand, if the new product is one that the audience is likely to find worthwhile then I doubt very much it needs lots of frequency. Reach, yes, frequency, no. Instead I would try to ensure that the media delivery either targeted times when you know more people are likely to be shopping or spread my spend out over time to remind people my brand exists for when they do shop. As you suggest, I am sure there are exceptions and nuances but, I ask you, isn't ten times in an hour overkill under any circumstance!

    DB, given my reaction to seeing the same ad over and over, and that of DP, I think the advertiser might be doing themselves a favor not to buy that package. Let the competitor undermine their own brand. I know you are not espousing this strategy but it speaks to the underlying belief that all advertising has a positive effect and more is better. No. Some advertising can have a negative effect and more is not necessarily better.

  5. Celal Bozkurt, January 24, 2017

    Not to go too far in any thing, including excessive repetition in ad, should be our motto or principle.

  6. DP, January 23, 2017
    I recently watched some free to air programming on a catch-up app.  Not only did the same brand appear in every ad pod, but where the broadcaster had set the pod length to 90 seconds, the ad rolled three times in succession.  By the end of the 45 minute programme, I hated that brand, but strongly suspect that it was lack of inventory rather than intention that did that.
  7. DB, January 23, 2017

    Most live sports are seen as premium content, and therefore the owners of that content sell it differently, generally as up front packages. The advertiser pays the premium and then has to find a brand in its portfolio (assuming they have more than one) to cough up from the marketing budget. More often than not, there are only a few brands in the portfolio that can, and by doing so ending up taken up disproportionately more ad inventory than they require. In a perfect world the advertiser would buy such a package, then spread the budget more effectively across its brands to mitigate all the issues you have so rightly outlined. Problem is, most businesses are not set-up to do that. 

    Why do brands still do this? Because if they don't, their competition will.

  8. Matt, January 23, 2017
    It's a discussion that is happening outside of the US as well. Here in Australia, budget pressure on the FMCG sector (driven by our effective duopoly of supermarkets) has seen a lot of ad budgets cut. This means we are seeing more ads for gambling, alcohol, travel, banking and telcos...essentially it feels like fewer advertisers are buying TV slots and as a result we are seeing a few select brands dominate the space. It seems that the days of variety and a strong mix of creative on the Australian FTA TV are pretty much over.
  9. Adam Coleman, January 23, 2017

    Nigel - please save me from those Chevy ads with 'real people' ... your point is very well made.

    It seems a lesson that should have been more pertinent years ago in that in 2017 there are more media outlets for visibility so advertisers should step back on their TV frequency given consumers will see their ads more often elsewhere anyway. I do think the NFL may be a special case (size of audience, type of audience, and the fact it's a sit back in your chair 'watch it live' environment). 

    Our Microsoft campaigns do a decent job of optimizing TV frequency because of this (I admit I may be a little biased!).

  10. Anand Parameswaran, January 23, 2017

    Hi Nigel,

    Will this hold true for a new launch too? Agreed on products that have been there for a while and there is nothing new to be said, My experience has been this kind of advertising done by brands that had new launches. E.G: An Automobile manufacturer launching premium dealerships and need to create impact

    Also will this be true for certain types of ads or categories? Humorous advertising and emotional ad with kids in it or rational messaging talking about the product benefits

    In another scenario if the client has limited media budgets and wants to create an impact in a day.

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