Brands seeking to understand the audience for their television spots need to consider the impact of the “commercial-zapping effect” among viewers, a study published in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR) has argued.

Authors Lianlian Song and Peng Zhou, from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Geoffrey Tso and Hingpo Lo, from City University of Hong Kong, found that TV watching habits changed when ads were on the screen.

“If an individual is watching a program on a channel … he or she unlikely will switch, except to engage in activities perceived as more important,” they wrote.

“When commercials begin, however, the number of viewers tuning out of this channel increases suddenly, because of the commercial-zapping effect. When the commercials end, the normal tuning-out pattern resumes.”

The paper, entitled Converting People-Meter Data from Per-Minute to Per-Second Analysis: A Statistical Model Offers a Closer Look at TV Ad Avoidance and Effectiveness, had a sample of 650 households covering at least 1,950 individual viewers.

And it selected eight popular dramas to determine the arrival and departure patterns of viewers, with particular emphasis on the commercial pods of each episode.

Drilling down into their findings, the research team discovered “little fluctuation in the number of tuning-in occurrences during the whole episode, and the number of tuning-out occurrences varied little during program broadcast time as well”.

The bad news for advertisers? “There was, however, considerable variation in the number of tuning-out occurrences when commercials began.”

It’s logical for brands to favour second-by-second measurement over program ratings that use a much broader timeframe, the paper said, but collecting accurate data to the individual level can be very difficult and expensive.

And, although the set-top box used for cable television can supply data in the unit of seconds, the observed unit is a household, not an individual, the scholars continued.

“Advertisers prefer to observe the audience variation of their advertisements directly rather than to be given general program ratings,” they added. “But because of commercial-zapping behavior, program-audience ratings are not equal to commercial ratings.”

“Converting People-Meter Data from Per-Minute to Per-Second Analysis” appears as part of a special “What We Know about TV in the Digital Age” section of JAR.

Sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by WARC staff