Why does anyone still advertise on TV?

Why do brands still advertise on linear TV, when they have all the wonders of Facebook and YouTube to utilise? This was the question that Martin Radford of Ebiquity took on at the Mediatel Future of Brands conference last week. He was launching Ebiquity’s Mind the Gap report, the successor to last year’s Tipping Point report, a comprehensive investigation of the reality of ad engagement across linear TV and online video, which made use of some of Lumen’s attention data.
Martin’s message was nuanced. Linear TV viewing is in decline, not just amongst younger users who have always been lighter TV watchers, but also amongst middle aged groups who you might expect to stay in for a night in front of the telly with the kids. Older people are watching (even) more TV, but that doesn’t offset the decline from the rest of the population.
At the same time, Facebook and YouTube reach is growing quickly. This might explain why in the States YouTube now makes more money that ABC, NBC and Fox combined(!). Or why Facebook’s ad revenue continues to soar.
But Martin dug a little deeper. Reach is one thing, but how many of these ads are actually getting looked at? And what is their impact in market? Working with the good people at Audience Project, Ebiquity commissioned some research into how many of the ads served to Facebook and Youtube users actually get viewed all the way through. The answer is: not all of them, though YouTube is better than Facebook.
And then Martin dug deeper still, combining Lumen and TVision data to understand not just the viewable time that these ads receive, but the ‘attentive seconds’ that each media generates.
This is what complicates the story, requiring thought and consideration from advertisers. Yes, fewer people are watching linear TV, and the ads that it carries. But, when they are watching, they are much more likely to pay attention to the ads, and so the ads are likely to be far more effective. When you move budget out of TV into online video, you should be aware that while you are gaining reach, you are also losing efficacy. Online video is weaker than TV, which is, in its turn, weaker than cinema.
The more far-sighted marketers out there might see trouble around the bend. Say this trend continues, and even accelerates (as the Ebiquity data suggests). How will advertisers be able to buy significant blocks of consumer attention in the future? It is very hard to tell a brand story in the 1.7 seconds you have of actual attention to a video ad on Facebook. Where will I be able to get a nice chunk of dedicated time to engage the ‘right brain’ that Orlando Wood discusses in his new bestseller, Lemon?
Well, the answer might be that you can’t. In many cultures, advertising is becoming a tax that only poor people pay. Part of the value proposition of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime is that they don’t waste people’s time with unsolicited sales messages (though that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not being sold to). When people are literally paying not to see ads, you have to question the sustainability of the current advertising ecosystem.
This might sound like an existential threat to marketing as we know it. And it is. But we have been here before. It’s called all of human history before the invention of commercial television. Some of the biggest brands in the world were built in this astringent environment. It may be harder to create a consistent brand narrative without the aid of 30 seconds of dedicated audio-visual support, but it can be done via the older, established means of influencer marketing, branded content and display advertising. And even if you absolutely require some video content to sell your product, it would be wise to remember that ads used to be 60 seconds long, on average, and were gradually cut down to 30 seconds, requiring a significant change in creative style. Perhaps a similar shift is required as we enter an age of 6 second video?
TV is not going anywhere – yet. Ebiquity’s report shows why smart advertisers should still put most of their money into TV ads, which remains the most powerful advertising medium available. But things are changing, and we should not assume that the future is going to be the same as the past. Just because people are willing to watch hours of ads on telly doesn’t mean that they will be willing to watch them on other platforms. The evidence is clear: they are not. We should understand this message not only in the media we buy, but also the creative we make and the stories we try to tell. We should take our lead from our customers, who are, after all, always right.