Ad Nauseam: Repetition of TV Spots Risks Driving Consumers Away
Fragmenting Media, Smaller Budgets Make for More of the Same Ads
By Brian Steinberg

Published: December 01, 2008

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Think how many times in the past few weeks you've been subjected to Christie Brinkley in a scene from "National Lampoon's Vacation," speaking in dubbed lines about DirecTV; or seen Sprint CEO Dan Hesse sitting in a diner talking about his company; or heard a reworked version of The Fixx's 1983 hit "Saved by Zero" used to alert you to Toyota's no-interest payment options.

The ubiquity of these and other ads have consumers fed up.

Repeats: Toyota's "Saved by Zero" (top), DirecTV's "National Lampoon's Vacation" and Sprint's Dan Hesse ads are in heavy rotation.

Exhibit A: the creation of a Facebook group -- 8,979 people strong -- organized to stop the Toyota ad from playing ("There have been worse commercials, and there have been commercials that were played this often; but never before has a commercial this bad been aired so much," reads the group's description).

In today's world of fractured consumer attention and eroded ratings on broadcast TV, marketers can start to bore a potential consumer much more quickly than in the past. And while complaints about seeing TV commercials ad infinitum are as common as sightings of the Energizer Bunny, there's something more sinister behind the current crop. The spate of repeat offenders ought to sound a loud alarm at agencies and media outlets, as it suggests that fewer marketers are ramping up production of new commercials, and it means the commercial break -- so easily avoided with the aid of a DVR these days -- will have even less appeal for viewers looking for captivating entertainment during tough economic times.

More than 26% of TV households will have DVRs by the end of 2008, according to Interpublic Group's Magna -- that's nearly one-third of potential customers for a cellphone, credit card or can of soup. Savvy creative executives have long protested that viewers will stick around to see really clever ads, but chances are that even a Coke and a smile wear pretty thin when you see the same commercial for the 88th time. In the ad world, the phenomenon is known as "wear-out," and it's the point at which consumers no longer listen to a message that's being pitched to them because they've seen or heard it so many times that it ceases to be new or interesting.

Consumers have grown much more sensitive to multiple showings of the same commercial, said Kate Sirkin, exec VP-global research director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group. While it takes only three ads to cause wear-out in print -- about the same as it did 10 to 15 years ago -- a TV ad these days can reach the same point after only eight showings, down from 15 to 20 during the same time period. Consumers are more aware of a greater range of entertainment choices, she said, and are "all multitasking, less patient, and don't like to have [their] time wasted."

But in some cases, it's a deliberate strategy.

Nissan Motor Co. decided in early November to move from its regular practice of running ads for several different cars in favor of putting all its ad time behind a message about how "Nissan delivers" zero-percent financing in a time of economic strife. In order for the message to sink in, the goal was for the commercials, created with Omnicom Group's Zimmerman agency, "to reach 75% of our target customer six times minimum," said Erich Marx, director of marketing and media for the Nissan division.

Part of the problem is that TV has become a more complex medium to buy.

Consider Thursday nights. For years, that has been the time when movie studios and retailers blanket the airwaves in the hopes of influencing consumer behavior on the weekends. From 1998 to 1999, 10 different prime-time shows each snared an average audience of 10 million or more, according to Nielsen Media Research -- among them "ER" (about 20.6 million), "Friends" (about 19.5 million) and even a less memorable program such as CBS's "Promised Land" (about 10.6 million). This season, through Nov. 16, only four programs snare more than 10 million viewers on a live-plus-same-day basis. And "ER" attracts only around 9 million people.

"With the fragmentation of the marketplace, advertising on a top top-10 show brings you about half the audience it did 10 years ago," said Nissan's Mr. Marx. Generally speaking, that means marketers have to run ads many more times in order to reach the millions and millions of people they want to attract. As ratings continue to slide, TV networks will in many cases have to offer "make goods" -- additional airings of ads to make sure they reach a previously agreed-upon audience level. Add to that the fact that marketers will try to extend their reach by surrounding consumers with ads on social networks, websites and billboards and in newspapers, and it means a person might hear or see echoes of a TV campaign all day long.

Tying to events
On TV, other factors are at work as well. More marketers are tying themselves to particular series, individual episodes or specific events. Sprint and Hyundai, for example, were featured Nov. 24 in Fox's two-hour "24" prequel, an attempt by the News Corp. network to spark buzz for its hit series, which will have been off the air for about 18 months when it resumes in January. The highly anticipated program is one of the costliest on this year's fall schedule. Sprint and Hyundai products appeared in the show -- which carried with it multiple ads from each marketer. Likewise, advertisers have demonstrated an interest in buying out an entire episode of a series, such as a season premiere. During a season premiere of NBC's "Heroes," a viewer might have seen the same ad from Nissan several times during the course of an hour.

Whether or not an advertiser can afford to create a dozen new ads to keep viewers captivated during a single show is a question that will have to be answered as the industry reconciles itself to new economics. And thanks to the slumping economy, it's not likely relief is coming soon, given that the downturn likely will crimp the production of new commercials even further.

While more 30-second ads are definitely in the pipeline for the holidays and early next year, "I think right now everybody is in a little bit of a slow mode," said Frank Scherma, president of production firm Radical Media. Indeed, in times of economic duress, some marketers typically opt to refresh old commercials, or stick with ones that are already on air for a longer period of time, said Matt Miller, CEO of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers.

The problem may grow worse before it improves. In tough times, more advertisers are likely to turn to so-called "value" messages -- playing up low prices or ease of purchase -- as consumers hold tightly to their purse strings. Those ads typically cost less to produce than one that contains special effects, celebrities or animated characters. While a group of value ads from the same marketer may be executed differently, the cumulative effect may well be the same: multiple commercials with the same message from a single advertiser. "The money goes into the media and not the production, and it allows a quicker in and a quicker out," said Rob Sherlock, chief creative officer of Interpublic Group's DraftFCB, Chicago.

Indeed, some marketers are looking to get on the air and quickly stand out through repeated viewing. The fourth quarter is the most important for DirecTV, said Jon Gieselman, senior VP-advertising and public relations. So if you've seen the company's "National Lampoon's Vacation" ad once, twice, three or even four times, that was the goal. "We wanted to make a big splash," Mr. Gieselman said, and viewers would need to see the ad as many as four times in order to understand the message. DirecTV recently put a new ad in rotation featuring singer Beyonce, which appears to be surfacing just as often as the Christie Brinkley spot.

Toyota knew it had "saturated the airwaves" with its "Saved by Zero" message, said spokesman Wade Hoyt, and did so intentionally. "There were all these media reports that credit was not available, and we felt it was keeping some shoppers away from dealers, so we wanted to have a dramatic program that reinforced the fact that we still had credit available," he said. "We think it helped us." Viewers can expect to keep hearing the commercial's refrain. While the ad is no longer in national rotation, it has been made available in as many as 12 different regions, he said.