Here’s the Skinny on TV Commercials

Maybe I should just get a life...

Recently I made a bold assertion to my friend with whom I often commiserate about the ills of the world, Citizens United, Seattle traffic, and the price of tea in China. I said something reckless like this: “You know, almost every commercial I see on TV is for a drug or medication – just one after another. It looks like big pharma owns the airwaves.”

The next day I thought, Boy! Was that irresponsible! Do you know it to be true? What if you’re dead wrong? You’d better find out the truth about whose money pays for the TV programming you watch. (I can be pretty hard on myself.)

So I set out to conduct a little experiment – a really simple one. For a few days I’d watch TV, including several different networks, and I’d faithfully jot down the product being pitched in every commercial. And I did just that. Now, to be perfectly honest, I like commercials. I watch them. I consider TV advertising to be a well developed art form, and I just adore the ones that truly succeed. I love Flo and the Gecko and the sassy little AT&T girl. I like all those disaffected car insurance customers who stand in front of the Statue of Liberty and tell their horror stories. I like Marco Polo in the pool playing “Marco Polo” with the kids. I like how great Marie Osmond looks now, and I think the little ColoGard box that sits on the front steps and then on the toilet is darling.

But, getting back to my experiment, I made these simple rules for myself: You have to watch at least 30 consecutive minutes of a show, and you must write down every commercial that airs. (I hope you know that meant I had to take bathroom breaks and make snack runs during the shows. A little pity, please.) Well, actually, I didn’t knock myself out. I watched exactly seven hours of programming over two days and took copious notes.

In those seven hours, how many commercials do you think I saw? 70? 125? 175? No, I saw 250 individual commercials in those seven hours! Now, to be fair, I will tell you exactly what networks and shows I watched. Obviously, the type of product being touted would be different on different networks, I realize. So let’s just say this is one sample of one viewer’s experience over two days. It’s not scientific or conclusive, but it’s interesting.

Here’s what I watched:

·      MSNBC – All In with Chris Hayes (30); The Rachel Maddow Show (30)

·      NBC – Nightly News (30); Summer Olympics (60); Nightly News (30- second day)

·      Fox News – Hannity (30); The O’Reilly Factor (30)

·      CNN – Newsroom (30); Erin Burnett Out Front (30)

·      Bloomberg – Charlie Rose (30)

·      ABC – World News (30)

·      CNBC – Shark Tank (60) [I love Shark Tank!]

Well, was I right? Do I see, by far, more commercials for drugs and medications than for anything else? Yes, but not by a lot. Fifteen percent of the 250 commercials I watched were from pharmaceutical companies, yes. But car companies placed a close second with 12%. And right behind the cars came – this will probably surprise you – entertainment: ads for specific movies and TV shows.

In fourth place were commercials for financial and investment help. Next, with slightly less than 5% of the commercial spots, came insurance companies. Communications (e.g. Comcast, T-Mobile and such) were the next most frequently aired. And it goes on from there. I identified 46 categories of products/services, including restaurants (5 spots total for 3 restaurant chains); beer (2: Kona and Stella Artois); shoes (1: Cloud 9 – never heard of them before); vision health (Transitions Lenses); soda (Coca Cola). You get the idea. I was perspicacious! (And that’s the first time I’ve used that word for many years!)

Besides the “count,” which was the goal of this little exercise, I learned a few other important things about TV commercials. But before I get to them, permit me to share a few of the “gee whiz” moments in those seven hours:

·      I saw one political ad in seven hours! Gee whiz!

·      Five travel ads, all for Trivago

·      WIX! Who ever heard of that? Not me. It’s a make-your-own-web site service. They showed up twice.

·      One clothing ad. One!

·      Of all the 31 automobile commercials, only two were for trucks.

·      I saw the same Ruby Tuesday commercial three times. (I didn’t like it any of the 3 times.)

·      PerfectWindow! What’s that all about? I saw the same ad five times.

·      Only one Microsoft ad, and nothing for Apple. Nothing.

·      Have you heard of ListingAllCars or HomeVester or LendVantage or All new to me.

·      I saw Aleve four times, Comcast four times, Farmers Insurance four times, Hampton by Hilton four times, Jaguar four times. (I thought the Jaguar ads were fantastic.)

·      In my meagre 30 minutes of Bloomberg TV, I saw four commercials for Bloomberg business products! Out of a total of nine ads!

·      Cosequin – it’s a drug for dogs’ joint health, like I take Glucosamine. What?!

Now, here’s another way to look at all my fascinating data: How many commercials aired in a 30-minute show? Well, if I saw 250 commercials in seven hours, that averages out to 18 commercials every 30 minutes. Does that seem like a lot to you? Well, just hold on, because these 250 commercials were not spread out evenly, 18 every half hour. Not by a long shot! Look back at those shows I watched. Which one do you think had the greatest number of ads per half hour?

I’ll tell you (of course). NBC Nightly News aired ads for 34 different products in a 30-minute show. I kid you not; I wrote them all down. Fifteen of them were pharmaceuticals, which explains why I had the impression that every ad on TV is for a drug: NBC Nightly News is the one I watch most often. (I do like Lester Holt. And on NBC, they’re still allowed to speak in complete sentences, unlike ABC, which has now gone to all participial phrases, but don’t get me started.) The show with the second-highest number of commercials was CNN Newsroom with 25. This one was a real mixed bag, with one car commercial (Lexus), one drug (Symbicort), one “health” spot ( – you can’t make this stuff up!), and the only “medical” commercial out of the whole 250 (Laser Spine Institute). Rachel Maddow aired 23 spots, Shark Tank had 22, but that was for a full hour. (Like I said, I love Shark Tank.) In an entire hour of Olympics coverage I saw only 13 commercials. What a difference between that and Nightly News!

And this all brings me to the biggest “aha!” moment of my seven hours: Just how long do you think the average TV commercial is today? Well, everyone knows I can’t do math, and I’m not even going to try. Please, if you can do math, tell us how long the average commercial would be if we saw 250 of them in seven hours. Please post the formula and the answer in the comment box, and bless you.

But while you’re doing that, may I point out that we are not talking about “average” here?! Thirty-four advertising spots in 30 minutes, with the news in between… well, it boggles the mind. Truly, as I was recording the name of each product with pen on paper, I struggled to write fast enough to record one before the next one started. I submit to you that I probably saw more 15-second commercials than ads of any other length. And they were effective. Message conveyed. (Except that, history – mine – now shows that, unless I was actually looking for those commercials, I never even saw them before. WIX?

Look at how much messaging we’re now packing into a half hour! And that doesn’t even include the world news, which was the point of watching in the first place!

So, where does that leave us? Well, it leaves me seven hours short on time, I suppose. I don’t know – what does it all mean, if anything?

Or should I just get a life?