Are there too many television commercials?
Increased clutter is reducing advertising's effectiveness

Do you sometimes feel snowed in, by what seems to be an avalanche of television commercials? It's not your imagination. Ad clutter is on the rise throughout North America. And it 's becoming a source concern for a most unlikely interest group: the advertising industry itself.

Daytime non-programming time in the U.S., rose to an astonishing 20:53 minutes per hour, up from 20:01 minutes the previous year, according to a study prepared for the American Association of Advertising Agencies. According to the same study, primetime non-programming time jumped to an all-time high of 16:43 minutes per hour, up almost a full minute from the previous year.

Here in Canada, the situation is not much different. Although the CRTC has set a limit of 12 commercial minutes per hour, there are so many exceptions to the rule, that its efficacy is questionable.

Monitoring of conventional and specialty programming in major Canadian markets last fall, conducted for the Association of Canadian Advertisers shows that 80 per cent of hours monitored, exceeded the 12 minute per hour theoretical maximum. Within this sub-total, non-programming time averaged 14:40 minutes per hour.

"The problem is not that there are too many ads out there," said Ron Lund, president of the ACA. "The problem is that there are too many, relative to the amount of television programming time being provided to the viewer."

You would hardly expect an ad industry lobbyist to decry excessive advertising. But too many ads makes it harder for individual advertisers to get heard above the rabble. "It leads to a decline in ad effectiveness," said Lund. "Viewers turn off (the television) either mentally or literally."

While public reaction toward excessive advertising tends to be directed toward advertisers, in fact, the industry has considerable interest to want to keep to a reasonable limit, the number of ads that viewers are exposed to.

It's broadcasters, trying to squeeze extra dollars out of every programming hour, that have the most incentive to cram as many commercials as they can into the television schedule. They would like to see the CRTC deregulate the airwaves to allow even more commercials.

Exceptions to the 12-minute rule already allow the networks considerable flexibility. For example, when U.S. shows -- shorter than Canadian shows because of increased advertising south-of-the border -- are purchased by Canadian networks, the networks are allowed to fill up the extra space with promos for other programming. That's why, for example, when watching the Super Bowl, Canadian viewers see endless commercials for Global Television shows.

But as bad as the situation is right now, it's going to get worse for both viewers and advertisers in September 2000, when even more exceptions to the CRTC limit kick in. Promos of Canadian programming -- regardless of the medium in which it airs -- as well as Canadian feature films will also be exempt form the 12 minute limit.

Increased ad clutter during the past decades is not just a matter of steady rises in commercial time per hour of programming. Ad lengths are also decreasing -- going from 60 seconds each, down to 30 seconds each. We are even seeing more and more 15 and 10 second spots -- meaning that there are far more commercials than ever before. For example: 20 minutes of 15-second commercials on an American daytime soap, means 80 different ads are competing for the viewer's attention, on that one show.

Ad clutter is by no means confined to television. Other media have been just as vulnerable. A classic indication many Montrealers have no doubt noticed, is the billboard companies that have been posting advertising posters in public rest rooms. Talk about a captive audience.

In radio, a new software called Cash -- which uses digital technology to snip out the silent pockets between words -- made headlines earlier this year, when it began to be used on Rush Limbaugh's talk show. Cash condenses programming -- by up to six minutes per hour ­ to allow advertisers to squeeze in more commercials.

The ACA has been responding to the increased ad clutter fairly passively: by monitoring and publicizing non-program content, and by following developments in the U.S. But the passiveness will not go on forever.

"What's the point of paying top dollar to place an ad on a top rated show like ER, if you lose a high percentage of your viewers to other channels, at the ad break. And even, possibly have these viewers watch a competitor's ad?" said Lund. "Advertisers need to know that they are getting the viewers, that they are paying broadcasters to deliver."

According to Lund, the association is looking for ways to study and quantify the amount of viewers who change channels during commercials.

Although it is very hard to find solid research in this area, just watching what happens in any living room when commercials hit -- zapping, hitting the "mute button," and trips to the fridge -- gives a clue what results such a study would produce. It does not take a genius to figure out, that a significant portion of the viewership that advertisers are paying broadcasters to reach, never sees their commercials.

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  © 2000 Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.