Michael Everett: running a mile – why today’s commercial breaks don’t work

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that no movie should be longer than the endurance of the human bladder. Advertisers are now providing the public with ad breaks of such endurance that they allow the human bladder to be relieved with ease – and with plenty of time to spare.

Until a few years ago, ad breaks on Britain’s main terrestrial commercial channel, ITV1, were limited to two minutes in length. These days, ad breaks often can be as long as four minutes. Think about that for a moment, four minutes. What can you do in four minutes? If you were Roger Bannister in 1954, or no doubt Mo Farah or Usain Bolt today, you could run a mile.

And, unfortunately, that’s what most viewers do as soon as the commercials start – they run a mile, anything, in fact, to avoid watching the ads. The trouble is that four minutes offers plenty of time to do more necessary things than watching TV commercials. Is it any wonder that living rooms empty as soon as advertisers arrive on screen?

There’s another problem that adversely affects ad breaks: idents or ‘bumpers’, as they are often called. These mini-bookends, which appear at each end of the commercial break, alert viewers to when the ads are about to start and when they are about to end. So, if you are away from the TV, you can hear when it’s time to skedaddle back. Idents are also an unintended convenience for those who wish to avoid ads when a recorded programme is being watched. They act as a cue, with pinpoint accuracy, of when to hit the fast forward button and when to resume normal play.

Indeed, many people, when faced with the dilemma of choosing between two concurrently scheduled programmes, opt to watch the ad-free BBC programme live and record the commercial programme to watch later. Not only does this enable the viewer to time-shift the commercial programme, it means he or she can fast forward through the ads when they do watch it. This is why with a perverse disregard for the wishes of their audience; commercial catch-up services allow viewers to fast forward through the programmes but not through the ads. The business reasons for this are obvious. Even so, it’s no surprise that ad-blocking software is so popular.


Of course, none of this helps to get the ads seen. But, by far and away the greatest incentive to avoid watching the ads, is not the time it takes to sit through them, but the ads themselves. Almost all of them are just not entertaining, original or interesting enough. If the ads set out to entertain, to be funny, to be involving, above all to be relevant to those watching them, they might just persuade viewers to stay put on the sofa.

As it is, most advertisers blithely assume that a bland offering that has passed muster from members of a marketing department, or been nodded through by a focus group, or is tailored to a lowest common denominator international audience, will likewise meet the approval of the general public in any given country. This is a dangerous assumption and one that keeps proving itself to be wrong. The fact is that most commercials are not remembered to the slightest degree, and the vast majority pass entirely unnoticed.

More than a century ago, Lord Leverhulme said that half of the money he spent on advertising was wasted; his problem was that he didn’t know which half. If you look at the latest estimates, wasting half your money starts to look good. It has been reckoned that the proportion of advertising expenditure that is wasted (that’s to say completely unnoticed or unremembered) is almost nine-tenths. So what has gone wrong? Why has advertising ceased to be relevant and engaging and, as a result, become so ineffective?

There are many reasons – far too many to rehearse in a short article like this. But overall, advertisers seem to content themselves with what appear to be mood boards that move – a set of images that give clients a nice warm feeling when they see them, yet have no meaning to the audience they are intended to influence.

There are more examples of this type of advertisement than I care to mention but the latest spot for Volvo is a case in point. This spot, like so many of these ads, is accompanied by what has to be said, is a terrific music track, in this case, Made Of by Viola Martinsson. It’s a nice track to listen to, especially when you’ve run a mile to be out of the room. But ultimately, in this context, it’s what you might describe as music to relieve your bladder by.

unnamed-41-300x199Michael Everett is a creative partner at Anatomised.

©Michael Everett

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