Focusing on Reality Viewers

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In a new study of advertising effectiveness, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Initiative Media analyzed reality television to gauge how marketing tactics such as product placement and online voting would affect viewer recall of ads.
“We’re beginning to structure a kind of a model or tool for advertisers where we can begin to zero in on opportunities that can be successful for them,” said Alex Chisholm, director of comparative media studies at MIT.
Among the study’s findings:
* Viewers were more likely to pay attention to advertising while watching reality television programs than they are while watching traditional network dramas and comedies.
* The greater a viewer’s loyalty to a program, the more receptive he or she was to the show’s advertising.
* Viewers who watch a program for pure entertainment (instead of for escapism, relaxation, to feel up-to-date or for information) were more likely to have positive attitudes toward advertising.
* Viewers were more likely to trust product placements used by characters in drama or comedy than on a reality show. However, they appreciated product placement in drama the least.
* Programs and advertisements have an increased impact on viewers when they watch the program in groups.
That last finding, noted Initiative Media’s study co-author Stacey Lynn Koerner, was particularly surprising.
“Conventional wisdom has it that the more people who are in the room, the more distraction there is and that that’s not conducive to better viewing,” Ms. Koerner said. “But group viewing is actually enhancing, because they’re discussing the content.”
Researchers in MIT’s comparative media studies program have dubbed reality television “the killer app” for studying media conversion, since several reality programs have encouraged viewers to move across media channels-from watching television to voting by phone to getting program updates online.
MIT first partnered with Initiative two years ago to study “Survivor.” The study found that loyal fans exhibited greater awareness of the show’s advertisers and were more likely to extend their program experience to the “Survivor” Web site. For their most recent study, researchers focused on the second season of “American Idol” as an entry point for analyzing viewer attitudes.
One of the central concepts of the MIT/Initiative research is that viewers have different levels of engagement with different programs and that these levels-not simply the number of viewers-are increasingly key to measuring advertising effectiveness.
They argue that the word “impression” to measure media impact is no longer valid and instead use the term “expression” to include viewer activities such as participating in program discussions online, visiting related Web sites and voting.
“Programs are thought to be interchangeable components, and we’re finding more and more with this type of research that that’s not the case,” said David Ernst, director of Futures & Technologies at Initiative. “It really matters what proportion of the audience is strongly connected to the shows and what those connections mean to the viewers.”
For instance, an ad on a low-rated program with strong viewer engagement, such as “Angel,” could potentially have more per-viewer impact than an ad placed on “Friends.”
“We’re not talking about dispensing with rating as a means for measuring audiences but finding more ways to factor additional means of audience expression,” Mr. Ernst said. “When you think about the history of advertising, you had a direct connection, where advertisers controlled the programs, and over the years we’ve ceded that. This research goes a long way to help advertisers reconnect with viewers.”