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Why Passive Entertainment Is a Smart Ad Buy

February 8th, 2019   ||    by Todd Wasserman

Have you ever worked on a weekend project at your house, put some music on in the background, and all of a sudden realized this album is really good? If so, you have seen how passive entertainment can penetrate your consciousness.

Advertisers know this effect all too well. A few years ago, Nielsen introduced Portable People Meters (PPMs)—electronic devices designed to pick up when consumers are exposed to TV or radio in public places. If you’re eating dinner at a restaurant and Lady Gaga is playing in the background, then a PPM picks it up even if you don’t consciously register it. Most billboards work in a similar manner; they’re not designed for intense scrutiny, but rather as part of the landscape that will register after several exposures.

Every medium is different, but the closest analog for TV is radio. Sometimes, like when we’re driving, we’re very focused on what we’re listening to. Other times, radio is just part of the aural landscape. Similarly, sometimes we intensely watch a show like Game of Thrones, and other times the TV is chattering away in the background while we’re doing other things. Though most advertisers would prefer to execute a buy for “active” viewing, passive viewing has its benefits, too.

The Science of Passive Entertainment Exposure

A report from On Device Research illustrates the value of passive exposure. The report found that while consumers didn’t actively recall seeing ads, they still had a 10.2 percent boost in unaided brand awareness and a 1.6 percent jump in purchase intent. Though the study focused on digital ads, the same concept can be applied to TV ads.

In an article for IAB UK, On Device Research CEO Alistair Hill speculates that passive ad exposure appeals to the part of the brain that makes fast decisions on an unconscious level. His research shows that 76 percent of consumers don’t recall ads that they have been exposed to in the last month. While advertisers might want to be in that remaining 24 percent, he cautions that many consumers only remember ads for brands they already know and like.

In other words, if your consumers remember your ads, the ads may be having little effect. Hill concludes that passive exposure matters since consumers still absorb the messaging and such messages have the power to convert new consumers instead of reach those who are already fans.

How Passive TV Ads Fit in a Media Plan

Marketers who balk at buying TV ads because “no one is paying attention” are only half right. While eMarketer notes that 68 percent of millennials employ a second screen while watching TV, it’s also likely that their brains are registering ads that they’re hearing in the background.

The best way to test this theory is to compare the purchase intent of ads that run during active watching versus passive watching. The designation of active versus passive can be self-reported or deduced by the context (a primetime show is likely to be more actively consumed than a morning news show, for instance).

While there’s no definitive research on the topic, there’s reason to believe that passive TV advertising may be more effective than most people think and possibly even more effective than ads run during active viewing.


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