Is Television Lying To Us?

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So, what do you think? Is television lying to us?

Last week, AdWeek published an article titled, Why TV Is Still the Most Effective Advertising Medium. I had three thoughts immediately enter my mind:

  1. Google AdWords. How can TV advertising be more efficient than Google AdWords in terms of hard core conversion to sales?
  2. YouTube. How can TV advertising be more efficient than running a video ad in a pre-roll that can be so well targeted on YouTube, or a myriad of other online video channels?
  3. Netflix. How can TV advertising be performing so well in a world where both cable TV. PVRs and Netflix are creating so much disruption and pushing consumers away from the habit of being interrupted during a show with a commercial?

When we talk about efficacy, are we really just talking about mass reach?

The article is based on a new study done in partnership between Turner Broadcasting, Horizon Media and MarketShare. The outcome is that TV advertising outperforms digital and offline channels at metrics like sales. Here are some of the data points from the research that might surprise you (it surprised me):

  • When comparing advertising performance at similar spending levels, TV averaged four times the sales lift of digital.
  • In a study using data from a luxury automaker, TV was the only medium to maintain its effectiveness (a 1.5 percent decrease in five years) while the other advertising media–both online and offline–declined more than 10 percent.
  • TV marketers can optimize their spend by leveraging data sources, including high-frequency consumer interactions like website visits and inbound calls, to improve TV advertising performance.
  • Premium online video from broadcast and cable networks out-performs video content from other publishers.

What is true about advertising?

We do know that advertisers of all kinds are shifting dollars to digital. Are they doing this because there is an assumption that digital is cheaper and more effective, or are they doing this because there is a feeling that TV’s efficacy has been shrunk, as more channels and opportunities to connect with consumers have come online? Are we in a place where TV is still the best way to spread a message far and wide, due to the focus of the medium? It’s hard to reach everyone – at once – on the Internet. Still, one would think that the targeting capabilities digitally enable a brand to reach a mass audience in a more deliberate and targeted way. The net result of this new report on television advertising, is not that TV trumps digital. It’s that digital and TV must work in a more complimentary fashion. That’s a fair conclusion (maybe even an obvious one), but it all seems a little confusing to me (and, yes, I’m a biased digital marketer).

What does television advertising do great?

For decades television advertising worked for one (major) reason: they held the viewers captive. The TVs were in all of our living rooms, basements and bedrooms. After a hard day of work, TV was our cumulative escape. As TV evolved beyond the major networks into the cable and specialty television business models, it added layers of opportunity. Technology, the Internet, computers, laptops, mobile devices, tablets and soon wearables are taking this video content, and not only distributing it across different screen formats, it’s forcing a new type of content that is symbiotic to the hardware and the channels within it. Yes, you can watch your favorite TV show on your mobile device (which more and more people are doing), but there are new networks and channels also being created that are native to the platforms as well (YouTube channels, Twitch and the like). Even television networks are now enabling their customers to watch (or binge watch) programs that were typically reserved for specific days and times during the week. So, that mass effect must be a game of diminishing returns.

Does the data lie?

Massive television shows debut with much smaller numbers than their counterparts did year’s ago. Look no further than Mad Men’s 3.3 million viewers for their series finale, and compare that to what happened a decade ago when other big series had a finale. YouTube sensation, Bethany Mota, has close to 9 million subscribers to her channel, and almost all of her videos can crank past the 3.3 million viewer mark, without much help. No, I’m not comparing Mota to Mad Men, but simply demonstrating that “mass” is a notion that can be easily challenged in this instance.

I still love TV… and so do you.

There is no need to eulogize TV viewership or TV advertising. I believe that it does, indeed, create attention, interest and even sales for many brands. I do question the notion that it’s the most effective way to advertise, in a world where messages can be so much more easily targeted, tested, optimized and delivered… to a mass audience. It feels like this study is saying that there is no advertising results without a mass TV effect. I’m not sure how many real brand managers would agree with that kind of declaration.

“Effective” may be a very tumultuous term when the mass audiences can be found in places that aren’t the television.