Research Shocker: TV Viewers Prefer Ads With Their Shows

Last Updated Sep 30, 2010 7:32 AM EDT

Flickr/cloudzilla
Grapple with this research finding for a minute. People prefer to watch TV shows that have commercial interruptions -- even if the ads are bad.

In fact, they'll pay more to view shows with ads.

Seems unlikely, given the success of HBO and other premium channels that run programs ad-free in return for you paying a monthly subscription. And if you ask viewers, they will say "No, no -- I hate commercials." But actions speak louder than words.

In a lab test, subjects who watched TV shows with commercials reported greater enjoyment -- and were willing to pay more for DVD collections of shows by the same director--than subjects who watched without interruptions.

Researchers Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis of New York University's Stern School and Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School offer up this reason: Interruptions rekindle out initial enthusiasm about seeing the show.

This is all like sitting in a massage chair, the researchers say.
"The longer a massage goes on, the more you get used to it," Nelson tells Harvard Business Review. "You adapt. But if it stops briefly, then starts again, it retriggers that initial enjoyment: 'Oh yeah, this massage feels great.' People report enjoying interrupted massages more even though they predict they'll like uninterrupted ones more."
The researchers say this effect -- known as adaptation -- is well proven. Sounds crazy to me. Would we like movies in the theater better if ads were placed throughout? Should CDs have breaks for Cialis spots, or books broken up with magazine-style ads?

Oh, and as to my question earlier about the popularity of non-commercial channels, Nelson believes this is so because the shows themselves build in interruptions by deploying alternate story lines -- think Tony's psych sessions with Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos.

If true, the revelation will certainly turn the marketing world upside down. The researchers are already working with a large TV network to replicate the results and think about the consequences.

Read Defend Your Research: Commercials Make Us Like TV More on HBR.org for more details.

(Image courtesy Flickr user cloudzilla)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.