Don’t change that channel.

TakeAway: With so many entertainment choices, TV faces tough competition for the attention of viewers. Even when people do watch TV, more than a third of viewers skip over commercials. 

For marketers deciding how to promote their brands, this can be troubling because TV commercials are very expensive to produce and air. 

Now, new research has examined how to keep viewers from changing the channel during commercials. 

In a very different approach than traditionally used, researchers discovered that “pulsing” repeated, brief images of the brand can significantly reduce the likelihood that viewers will “zap” it.

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Excerpted from HBS Working Knowledge, “Improving Brand Recognition in TV Ads,” by Julia Hanna, June 7, 2010

Advertisers pay millions of dollars to air TV ads that, by some estimates, more than a third of viewers skip over with digital VCRs or by switching channels or tuning out altogether.

New research by HBS professor Thales S. Teixeira offers a simple, inexpensive solution to help marketers hold on to some of those consumer eyeballs. …

Teixeira and his coauthors show that “pulsing” repeated, brief images of the brand can significantly reduce the likelihood that viewers will zap it, as opposed to showing the brand for long periods of time at the beginning or end of the ad. …


Theories abound as to the most effective strategy for crafting a TV commercial … There are also ideas about placing the brand early in the commercial, late (the so-called mystery approach), or early and late.

“The days when you could tell a consumer what to do are long gone,” says Teixeira. “In the 1960s, the brand was onscreen all the time with a direct message: ‘Drink a Coke,’ for instance. Today, people are searching for valuable information that is relevant to them. They also want to be entertained, and the ‘hard sell’ that turns them off can be at the level of simply presenting the brand’s logo for more than a few seconds.” …

The dilemma is that our findings show that brand images cause people to zap,” Teixeira says. “But they’re a necessary evil; without the brand, viewers can’t identify what is being sold. So how do you make an ad that includes the brand without causing a high level of zapping?” …


Taken alone, brand presence automatically increases commercial avoidance. But … changing the pattern of brand exposure (without decreasing the total amount of time the brand is shown) can lower zapping rates, and that a “pulsing” strategy in which the brand is inserted briefly and intermittently throughout the commercial is most effective, resulting in an average decreased zapping of 8 to 10 percent. …


From a managers’ perspective, altering the commercials to mimic a pulsing strategy is a virtually cost-free fix for a significant payoff, with zapping rates for some commercials reduced by as much as 25 percent in a lab experiment. If a company is paying to advertise on prime-time television during a show with an estimated 5 million viewers, 50 to 60 percent of those viewers (2.5 to 3 million people) can be lost with usual zapping rates; as many as 1 million could be recaptured by using the pulsing strategy. …


Will these findings influence how advertisers craft their ads in the future? Teixeira notes that there is already some evidence of pulsing in ads, as in the award-winning “The Happiness Factory” for Coca-Cola, and various automobile commercials that briefly show the brand logo of a car from various angles as it maneuvers a winding road. …



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