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How do Commercial Ratings Rate?

March 19, 2007 12:00 AM

Are commercial ratings for real?

Not yet, but the Association of National Advertisers is holding a powwow in New York March 20, calling on the TV industry to begin offering brand-specific commercial ratings. Good luck, I say.

The ANA's TV Advertising Committee is beating the drum loudly now, growing more impatient that commercial ratings still don't exist and demanding a more collaborative approach among advertisers, media services and the TV community to make this happen and soon. "Collaborative commiserating" would be more appropriate language.

In all fairness, Nielsen has made some progress on this front, delivering minute-by-minute ratings. The problem is that even those more advanced yardsticks do not isolate individual commercials within any given minute. For now, all they tell you is basically when a viewer in a metered household hit the remote and moved to another channel during the pod. OK, that's a step forward.

And although Nielsen has gone back to the drawing board once again and promises to deliver more accurate data come May 31, the data will not include brand-specific commercial ratings, said Mel Berning, A&E Television Networks' executive VP, advertising sales.

So forget about brand-specific commercial ratings being a factor in the upfront ad sales market, mere months away. "Even if we got the new minute-by-minute data on May 31, there's no way we would be able to set rate cards by June 1, the day after. We're doing rate cards now," Mr. Berning said.

The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's VP of Research and Insight, Ira Sussman, said Nielsen so far has not been able to demonstrate that it can actually provide "reliable sub-minute" data that's accurate and "forecastable."

Given all the advances of science—after all, we can put a man on the moon-mdash;why can't a medium that is half a century old figure this out? Part of the problem-mdash;and no one will ever say this publicly—is that the companies that actually pay the freight and foot Nielsen's bill, largely the broadcast and cable networks and ad agencies, in their heart of hearts don't want to see this happen.

And I have to say I'm in their camp. Even if it can be done, and the numbers are statistically projectable one day, they will provide absolutely no information on whether a viewer walked out of the room to get a drink of water, was reading the paper, talking on the phone, screwing around online or even awake. Maybe it's best if the viewer was asleep, in a hypnotic trance, and awoke later to remember the subliminal suggestion of an ad.

Where advertisers should be demanding more data is on the engagement scale of viewing, which ascertains not only if the commercial was actually seen, but can determine if it was active or passing viewing. "That's the Holy Grail and gets closer to asking the question if the ad worked," said Mr. Berning.

There's an even more troublesome question to confront after all these years, and that is if advertising really works at all. Creatives who produce commercials, television networks, advertisers and agencies, which all have some skin in this game—their bottom lines and their very livelihoods—all want to believe advertising, particularly TV ads, moves products off shelves and autos off lots.

Even online ads, which can be more accurately measured, are suspect because of the growing rise of click fraud, said Mr. Berning. As far as getting viewers to actually watch TV ads, he recommends programmers sprinkle more short-form content into their commercial pods to keep people engaged and not drive them to the remote control.

Obviously I see no value whatsoever in commercial ratings. And while I'm a believer in engagement research, the real truth is that a lot of ads are just plain boring; they're run too often with the same droning message, driving viewers in droves to other destinations on the TV set or out of the room. And to be fair to all, much the same can be said about most of the actual programming on TV. Look at the ratings.