Who's to Blame for Ad Clutter?

PUBLISHED: Jan. 7, 2019

Modern media is awash in advertising clutter, and who’s to blame? Modern audiences that abhor conventional full-length and full-size ads.

Today’s consumers don’t like to pay for content, which ought to create a rich environment for advertisers. Yet These same consumers are prone to click or turn away when a conventional ad appears. The result is ad clutter.

YouTube features a combination of full-length ads, skippable ads, lower-screen banners and display ads on the page alongside each video. Newspapers that once considered the front page sacrosanct now routinely run ads there. On a recent American Airlines trip, flight attendants interrupted the plane’s entertainment system to pitch a credit-card deal.

Advertisers integrate plugs into content to thwart digital video recorders, which allow viewers to watch programs on a delay and skip regular commercials. The National Basketball Association, discovering that advertisers had an interest in basketball uniforms, last year begin selling sponsorships on players’ jerseys.

If you watch regional telecasts of baseball games, the commercial clutter is overwhelming. Ads are visible on the stadium wall behind the home-plate umpire. On-screen graphics include sponsor logos. And everything is a paid plug—”This call to the bullpen is brought to you by Verizon.”

According to the showbiz paper Variety, several streaming services are about to introduce a new twist: commercials that start running whenever a viewer pauses a program. Hulu intends to launch such ads this year. AT&T's DirecTV and U-verse units will reportedly use similar technology to trigger full-motion commercials whenever a viewer tries to take a break.

There’s a lot at stake. According to Variety, National Football League TV broadcasts generate an estimated $4.35 billion in ad revenue during the 17-week regular season. NFL broadcasts are now loaded with mini commercials that pop up when there is a brief pause in the action, often in “double boxes” that show a view of the field in one frame and a commercial in the other.

Interestingly, with no “screen” to work with, radio is one medium that has tried for some time to buck the trend. Many commercial stations trade clutter for clusters—that is, a solid block of commercials running five minutes or more, followed by lengthy commercial-free stretches of time.

But wherever a screen is involved, or a printed page, ad clutter is omnipresent. Programmers and advertisers can’t really be expected to limit this; it’s a fact of business. Consumers, on the other hand, can opt for commercial-free content—if they’re willing to pay for it.

But getting limitless content without paying while also being spared heavy advertising intrusions is untenable. The media environment is permanently cluttered. Audiences should have been careful what they wished for.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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