what ads say

This cartoon is inspired by one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons, showing two panels of a dog owner scolding his pet to stay out of the garbage. The first panel illustrates “what we say to dogs”. The second panel shows “what they hear”, with every word (except the dog’s name) replaced by “blah blah blah”.

Consumers have this same type of selective hearing. They are increasingly equipped to tune out marketing messaging in every medium, particularly classic television advertising. A Deloitte study showed that 86% of television viewers regularly fast-forwarded ads.

Some advertisers respond to this phenomenon by designing ads to be watched at 12 times normal speed (featuring lingering shots of brands, logos, and characters).

I think a better takeaway is to create advertising so good that viewers choose to watch.

Last month, TiVo hosted the Third Annual “Battle of the Consumer Electronics Brands at CES”. They tracked second-by-second fast-forward rates for different brands. TiVo SVP Tara Maitra framed the winners this way, “In the age of on-demand television viewing it’s not necessarily the consumer technology brand who runs the most ads that’s the winner in terms of capturing eyeballs — it’s the one who finds a better way to keep consumers from picking up the remote and moving on to other content.”

In other words, increasing the quality of the content is more important than increasing the media spend. It raises the bar on advertising to create better quality content, content that passes the “fast forward test”.

I think marketers need to regularly ask themselves if their marketing passes the “fast-forward test”. Because that’s the evaluation that consumers are making, remote in hand.

(Marketoonist Tuesday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment by 5:00 PST on Tuesday, an extra day because of the US holiday. Thanks!)

On a related note, I wanted to share that I’m giving a talk next month at Digital Marketing World, put on by MarketingProfs. It’s a free virtual conference, so you’re all invited on March 9 at 1:00 EST (and to register now). My talk is titled “Content Worth Sharing: What Marketers Can Learn From Cartoons“. It will include a 30-minute cartoon-packed talk, an interview with Ann Handley (Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and author of Content Rules) and some Q&A chat. Hope to see you there!

(Thanks to my wife Tallie for suggesting that the Larson cartoon would make a funny commentary on advertising clutter).

  1. Boris says

    Will the talk be recorded in any way and possible to view after?
    Unfortunatly I am skiing at the 9th march and I would love to see it when i return from holidays.

  2. Charity says

    This cracks me up! We’ve gotten to the point of DVR’ing everything so we can fast-forward through the commercials. We’ll start a show 15-20 minutes in and pause whenever we want because we’re “burning commercial time” anyway. Marketers are going to have to get more creative if they want my attention.

    I’m waiting to see a company figure out how to reach me while I’m fast-forwarding (think flip-books). If only the important messages would display during the fast-forward (x2, x3, x4), now THAT would be something worth watching!

  3. Ashley C. says

    Ah, great inspiration from Gary Larson! Truly a classic – the cartoon itself, as well as the artist. I think the reason that consumers are exercising this “selective hearing” is that advertisers/marketers really aren’t sharing anything new! This issue of perceived “lather-rinse-repeat” cycles comes from two major issues that you have touched upon within your cartoons so far within the past few months – 1.) Lack of truly innovative products in the marketplace; and 2.) Lack of strong consumer insights. Even if we continued to live in a world of “commercial innovations” where the new news of the season is a new product scent, what will help differentiate in the marketplace – as well as on the television screen – would be communicating this to the consumer in a relevant and differentiating manner. Marketing/advertising 101, but it is amazing how we overlook this in the final cut of the ad (or perhaps the foundation block – um, the brief!?). Relevancy is the key ingredient – for the consumer target, for the consumer need, and ultimately in the message. When that happens, consumers will keep from fast forwarding (or actually tune in when they cannot fast forward on Hulu).

  4. Bill Carlson says

    A TV show considered successful might have as few as 3 million viewers — reported “share” of target consumers is single-digit percentages… And of that 3 million, perhaps at any given point in time 10% are in the market for the advertised product?

    So we’re discussing here how to get 300,000 prospects to take something away from fast-forwarded TV commercials? Okay, fair enough, they’re watching other shows and other segments of the same target audience are watching other shows, but still…

    In the meantime, it’s likely that 100% of the target audience is online (in my house it’s often WHILE the TV is on!), probably for hours per day, so perhaps the bigger opportunity (and challenge) is how to convert “click-past” (ignoring or interactively skipping ads) to “click-thru” (actual engagement).

  5. DSprogis says


    I look forward to your piece every Monday!

    This piece is particularly interesting to me – with US ad spending at $173b to reach 311m people, advertisers paid over $550 per person in 2011. Adjusting for age and demographics, advertisers likely paid over $2,000 to reach members of your audience. If 86% are lost to FF, then only $280 of that $2000 is having any effect.

    With that level of inefficiency, one would think that the “fast forward” becomes critical. However, I’d wager that the “fast forward” test boils down to skin, hair, muscle, and flash. So we return to the old adage that “sex sells”.

    I wonder, however, whether there is another message. I wonder whether viewers are drawing the line at 86% because they can’t tolerate the excessive proliferation of advertising. Might the industry be better served by reducing the ad space and putting a higher premium on it? What if prime time had only 14% of their current ad space, 2-3 minutes on the hour rather that 14-15 minutes? And what if ads were rarely viewed twice in an evening rather than so many times that they become irritating? And with the cost of slots so high, what if advertisers routinely spend Super Bowl sums on creative? Might viewers not only be too lazy to skip so few ads, might viewers actually want to watch the ads?

  6. Brit Tucker Stewart says

    I have never thought about it in this way, but you are spot-on with this. Consumers not only do not have patience, they also have selective hearing. Great insight, Tom!

  7. Akshay says

    I think moving to in-program advertising (product placement) would be one of the answers. That would not mean, that we’d have to do away with ads altogether – the superbowl for e.g. is more about ads than the game – many folks in India for that matter know ‘Superbowl’ becuse of the ads – and not the game.

    I would tend to agree with one of the commentators here that say ‘relevance’ but if I am interested in the program – then I am gonna FF, no two ways about it, and even if i catch a lingering brand image – its not going to register.

    In-program advertising, if done correctly, would do much better. The BBC aired ‘Sherlock’ series advertises Phone brands via product placement almost shamelessly. But, the point here is – its almost not intrusive – you’d notice it but you’d carry on. Im sure, veracity of PP cant be established with one anecdote. But, PP with relevance makes sense
    (‘done correctly': very imp)

    Btw, great as always Tom…

  8. Melanie Deardorff says

    That IS a Larson classic — love your spin on it. There’s also a “What we say to cats” cartoon (can’t find a good link to share, but I do see the images on Google). As a long-time marketing vet, I totally related to your cartoons. Thanks for the weekly chuckles and for your thoughtful posts.

  9. Russel says

    I haven’t seen or heard of it yet, but I suspect some marketeers will figure out a way to cleverly convey a message even with FF being used. On old VCR’s a FF image was unwatchable, with DVR’s you can still see the content. If you can flash a message with a long enough duration and the right repetition to register even with FF you’ve essentially created subliminal advertizing that is legal.

  10. says

    Hi all,

    Great feedback this week, many thanks! I always learn so much from your comments.

    This week’s signed print goes to DSprogis. I love the challenge he poses to rethink how traditional advertising even works, to shift from a quantity approach to a quality approach. In a way, this is what TED is trying to promote with “Ads Worth Spreading” (which I invariably stick around to watch after listening to a TED talk):

    “With this competition, we’re seeking to reverse the trend of online ads being aggressively forced on users. We want to nurture ads so good you choose to watch. On TED.com, ads run after our talks, not before. This means they can run longer than the TV-standard 30 seconds. And that’s the key! In 2-3 minutes, there’s enough time to really tell a story, share an idea, make an authentic human connection, become unforgettable. Instead of ambush, they offer pleasurable, intelligent engagement. ”



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