Do people watch ads? It's a seemingly obvious question, but almost all standard industry measures of how many people are watching ads at any given time, are based on a huge assumption: that if you are watching a show or reading a paper, you are also paying attention to the ads.
Similarly, academics have developed a 40- year corpus of theory from thousands of experiments, mostly in the US, in which students are paid to sit in a lab, watch an ad, and then fill out a questionnaire. The problem with both industry and academic approaches is that they assume people watch ads in the first place.
For the last two years a small team at London Business School has been exploring whether this is so. Eight households were recruited to take part in an ethnographic study in which their viewing behaviour was observed and recorded. They were selected to capture the spectrum of British life: from six students sharing a tiny house to a single working mother to an affluent retired couple.
"Black boxes" were created that contained a VCR to recorded what they watched and, via a discreetly placed micro-camera and microphone, the actual goings on in the room. The boxes were left in place for three weeks but were only active for the final week, by which time the members of each household had become used to them.
So what have we discovered?
The key finding is this. We should not be asking when and why people decide not to watch ads. Rather, we should ask why they do watch them, because the glaring fact to emerge from all our households is that people spend most of their time actively avoiding ads.
Indeed, for most of our sample the ad breaks were a welcome chance to do other things. These activities varied from going for a cigarette to making the tea, to checking on the kids. As our single mother put it: "I already feel guilty for watching TV rather than working or tidying up so when the ads come on it's a three-minute guilt reducer and a chance to get things done."
If someone watching on their own encounters an ad break they invariably change channel. Zappers fall into two groups: "surfers" who move up and down the channels before returning, with remarkable accuracy, to their programme as the ads conclude, and "switchers" who go to a pre-designated "go-to channel" such as MTV or BBC News. In a social group, this zapping task is exclusively a male activity.
The social context that surrounds advertising also proved fascinating. As the number of people watching TV increases, the probability of the ads being zapped decreases. For advertisers this means a greater likelihood of the audience being exposed to the ad. Unfortunately, however, the presence of more people in the room during the ad break increases the probability of them talking to each other. Our research reveals the same recurring pattern across all the households: a programme concludes, the body language of the whole household changes instantly, and social discourse begins at exactly the same moment as the ads start.
According to most measurements this conversational group who are ignoring the ads would be counted as part of the advertising audience. Ironically, the only hope for advertisers to break through in these situations is the very socialness that usually blocks out the ads. When one of our sample did glimpse an ad that they wanted the rest of their household to see they would interrupt the proceedings and direct the attention of everyone to the ad. Even in these situations, however, the news is not always good. We recorded far more negative comment on these ads than positive. If households do watch the ad as a group they are more likely to criticise the ad itself or, worse still, the actual company or product being advertised.
We are still a long way from concluding our analysis of the data but already we are beginning to generate some remarkable insights from one of Britain's most mundane activities. Perhaps the most intriguing stage so far has been revisiting each of our eight households and replaying some of their tapes back to them. It's clear from this that not only do advertisers and academics fail to grasp the complexity of advertising viewing, but even the viewers are often at a loss to explain their own behaviour, even after watching it several times. Complex stuff.
Mark Ritson is assistant professor of marketing at London Business School