In new experiments for NBC, people are hooked up to sensors as they watch television, and researchers observe changes in their heart rate, palm sweat, eye movement and breathing patterns. But the panelists are not watching just NBC programmes. They are watching commercials—in fast-forward mode.
So far, the findings have been just what NBC hoped: judging from the biological reactions, the test subjects were just as engaged while watching fast-forwarded advertisements as they were viewing opening scenes from the NBC show “Heroes” at regular speed.
And that conclusion—which is still preliminary—could have big implications for NBC and other networks as they negotiate rates for air time with advertisers. Advertisers have steadfastly refused to pay the networks for viewers who fast-forward commercials, as more households buy digital video recorders (DVR) such as TiVo, the networks may one day argue that this system should change.
When it comes to fast-forward advertisements, “the assumption has always been that they have no economic value, that they have no communication value,” said Alan Wurtzel, president for research at NBC Universal. “But the fact of the matter is we’re learning that they are valuable.”
The thesis flies in the face of the assumption among advertisers that their ads have no effect when played at a high speed over a DVR. Over the past month, as advertising agencies and television networks negotiated billions of dollars in deals for commercials during next year’s season, executives who buy commercial airtime did not waver in their position that people who zap past advertisements are of no value to them.
“Would we pay when they’re fast-forwarding? No,” said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director for national broadcast at MindShare North America, an agency that buys advertisements in the WPP Group. “You’ve created a message that in theory requires 15-30 seconds to get that selling message across. On a high-speed DVR, 30 seconds gets cut to 1.5 seconds with no audio. It just wouldn’t work.”
For decades, advertisers have paid for advertisements based on how many people see them—or how many “impressions” an advertisement receives, in industry terms. Now that technology has reshaped people’s viewing habits, advertising executives are looking for other ways to quantify their audiences and gauge the impact of messages.
“Whether people watch or not is not a useful measure of anything,” said Joe Plummer, chief research officer for the Advertising Research Foundation. “Exposure has very, very weak correlation with purchase intent and actual sales whereas an engagement measure has high correlation and are closer to what really matters, which is brand growth and creating brand demand.”
Media executives have long discussed the potential of using physical reactions and brain scanning to track their messages, and advances in medical research in the past few years have made this more practical. NBC is working with Innerscope Research, a small company in Boston that uses wearable sensors to translate physical responses into what the company calls “emotional engagement.”
Panelists wear black-netted vests with tubes running out of them. Sensors on fingers measure sweat or “skin conductance,” as the researchers like to say. A monitor picks up on heartbeats, and an accelerometer tracks movement when panelists wiggle in their seats or chuckle. A respiratory band can tell if the abdomen and chest stop moving—noticing when someone holds their breath, for example, in a scene of suspense.
Innerscope has developed its own scale for engagement that combines the biometric factors that it tracks. On a scale of 1-100, a 50 is neutral, and above 60 is engaged. In Innerscope’s test for NBC, viewers of the first 20 seconds of live advertisements clocked in with a 66 engagement score and those fast-forwarding scored 68. “People don’t turn off their emotional responses while they are fast-forwarding,” said Carl Marci, the chief science officer of Innerscope. “People are obviously getting the information.” Innerscope is working on a second study for NBC that will try to pin down which types of commercials generate the most engagement in fast-forward mode.
Innerscope will monitor things like how often brands are shown during the advertisement, how quickly the camera cuts to new images, and whether audio is important in the storyline.
From there, NBC may be able to offer tips on how to make commercials stand out, even at rapid speeds.
“We can then go through our advertisers and help them optimize a commercial for fast-forwarding, while also not denigrating the quality while watched live,” Wurtzel said.
Millward Brown, an advertising research company in the WPP Group, has also studied physical responses to television commercials.
The company found that people who have already seen an advertisement will tend to experience the same emotional response when seeing the same advertisement again in fast-forward mode.
Fast-forwarding should not scare advertisers because consumers are engaged to some degree, just by the act of pushing the button, said Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst for Millward Brown.