In Depth

Study Watches People Watch Commercials

People watch a lot of commercials.

That’s one of the key findings of the $3.5 million study by the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence.

These days, the 30-second spot is under attack, both from digital video recorders, which allow viewers to skip them, and from advertisers who want to be integrated into the programming because they’re concerned that commercials alone don’t get their message across anymore.

But after spending 952 days actually observing media consumers, the study found that while watching 8½ hours of video content per day, viewers are exposed to 61 minutes worth of commercials.

The study was conducted by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design and Sequent Partners using observers outfitted with handheld computers that recorded the media usage of participants in the study in 10-second intervals.

The observers noted the various program genres people watched, including the commercials they were exposed to.

Exposed “means they’re not counted if they’ve left the room and gone to another part of the house during that period of time and are no longer in eyeshot or earshot,” said Bill Moult, founding partner of Sequent Partners.

The study’s commercial exposure figure is slightly higher than Nielsen’s, which is 56 minutes per day. (Mr. Moult said one of the factors explaining the difference between the CRE study’s finding and Nielsen’s is that Nielsen doesn’t count local advertising.)

Either way, “We’re talking an hour a day,” Mr. Moult said. “For many of these media other than television, an hour a day of exposure is a big deal. Now we’re talking about something that happens within television, and it’s certainly of importance to advertisers.”

In addition to looking at how video is consumed today, the researchers peer into a crystal ball known as a Media Acceleration Study.

A group of study participants in Indianapolis were given matching cash to buy the latest and greatest media gadgets at half-price. The gizmos on the list are ones the researchers believe have the potential to be in 20% to 25% of homes in two to three years.

The goal is to avoid forecasting how the public will behave based on what early adopters do.
“What we’re trying to get is the early majority, the people who already know enough about the devices that we’re offering to them,” said Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research at Ball State’s Center for Media Design. “What we effectively do is give them a jolt forward in time. … It’s quite interesting to see what people actually buy.”

What the people in the study most often bought were game consoles—PS3s, Xboxes and Wiis—and high-definition television sets.

By and large, people who got HDTVs watched a lot more TV.

“We think this provides at least one possible contributing factor to the growth that’s happening in television,” Mr. Bloxham said.

“Not all of those screens were the first HDTV in the household. Some people were using this as an opportunity to get another one, which also raises some interesting questions about HD moving into a second room in the house,” he said.

Mr. Bloxham said nobody in the study purchased a DVR or a TiVo. More people appear to be getting DVRs included in their cable services, particularly when they order HDTV.

“So fewer people are inclined to make the high-ticket purchase of going out and buying a stand-alone device,” he said.

Another interesting finding was the difference between the way people self-report their media habits and what the observers saw and recorded.

The day after a person was followed and observed, he was called and asked about what he did and for how long.

“You really get to see what’s the relationship between what people say and what they do, or at least what they do as observed by a trained observer. And it’s a big difference,” Mr. Moult said.

The self-reported television use is about four hours—way below the actual figure. Self-estimates of computer use turned out to be reasonably close, although a little bit overestimated.

But people were way off in estimating the amount of time spent watching online video.

Mr. Moult described one participant in the study, a resident studying to be a physician, who loved his iPhone and wanted to tell the researchers about all the things he did with the device.
His estimate of how much time he spent with the iPhone: two to three hours. How much time did the observers see him using his iPhone? Just 24.6 minutes.

“The iPhone is very important to him. We’re not going to dispute that,” Mr. Moult said. But “as people get very, very excited about some of these videos and capability and technologies and so forth, they just don’t do a very good job estimating the amount of time, so you have to be very, very careful using that data.”