Why creeping ad clutter is a bad thing for brands

by Nigel Hollis | February 20, 2017

Recently WARC’s news email announced that average ad loads on national television in the U.S. continued to creep upwards from 10.4 minutes per hour in December 2014, to 10.9 minutes in December 2016. While the difference is less than 5 percent, broadcast marketers should be concerned because the evidence suggests that more clutter is a bad thing for brands.

This is not a new finding. Witness the fact that on digging into my files I came across an article by my then colleague Andy Farr titled, “How advertising clutter affects TV's power”, dated September 2002. I realize that the age of this paper might cause some of you to write it off as irrelevant, but you would be wrong. Andy’s findings and basic conclusion are just as relevant today as they were fifteen years ago.

The paper examines the influence of clutter in two different ways: across countries and across time. The basic findings are as follows:

  1. The ability for advertising to create a conscious recollection that the brand has advertised recently is lower in countries with higher ad loads. Weight of spend was factored out in the analysis to give a per 100 GRP measure of branded impact or, as I prefer because it is more accurate, brand-linked memorability. Based on the data available to him Andy calculated that an increase in clutter from 400 to 500 ads per week would result in an 8 percent decline in average advertising impact.
  2. Looking over time Andy cites the example of Spain where in the space of ten years the volume of advertising shown per year has increased 10 fold. That rise was paralleled by a decline of 30 percent in terms of the average level of advertising impact.

This is not just ancient history, Andy’s findings have been replicated more recently and the same cross-country relationship holds true: more ads, less impact. Data from South Africa confirms the over time analysis and finds that the number of new ads each year steadily rose from 500 in 1984 to around 2000 in 2011 with a concurrent decrease in ad noting (a form of ad recognition).


So how do we square these findings with the fact that while ad clutter continues to increase TV companies are adamant that their medium is not less effective than it was? I suspect that it has to do with the fact that provided you reach a good cross-section of potential buyers in your category, relative ad effectiveness matters more than absolute. Increased ad clutter is lowering the absolute impact for all brands, but the ones with good advertising still stand to benefit more than the ones with bad advertising.

There is evidence that advertisers have counteracted increased clutter with increased weight.  And there is no doubt that TV is most effective when combined as part of a cross media campaign. However, I believe the basic conclusion from Andy’s paper still holds true today,

“Advertising clutter is an important factor, but the strength of the copy is still the most important determinant of success.”

Writing this post makes me think the TV industry should actually be very grateful that online is now such a huge part of people’s lives, because 10 minutes of ads is actually relatively little compared to the constant barrage of online advertising. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Ivana, March 15, 2017
    Your last thought on how TV industry should be grateful that online emerged gives a totally different view on the clash between "traditional" and the "new" media. So, definitely, if growing TV clutter lowers the advertising impact, then online surely helps in maintaining that impact. The key behavior for brands here is to utilize all available and meaningful channels (not just focus on one or two channels or eliminate online just because this brand's category isn't usually present online or for similar reasons). And the other part of the picture are creativity and ideas. No matter how much data we have or how mathematically or technically progressive we'll be, there is always that creative part that can't be measured but that can break through the clutter and be memorable. 
  2. Nigel, February 25, 2017

    I am not sure that I know of a contemporary study on digital ad clutter. I will check with my colleagues.

    There was one from over a decade ago that found perceived on page ad clutter to have a negative influence on ad attitudinal ad response. 

  3. Paul Edwards, February 21, 2017

    Have you done any similar work on clutter on line?

    I suspect my instincts are the same as yours.

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