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Breaking through the clutter: a look at exposure to advertising messages

Social & Digital

Breaking through the clutter: a look at exposure to advertising messages


I’ve been telling people for years that they see 3,000 ads a day and they all believe me. No one blinks. No one questions the number. It’s in all the textbooks and it’s all over the interwebs. And everyone knows the interwebs don’t lie. Secretly, I’ve been a little skeptical. Presuming you actually get eight hours sleep a night (in which case you clearly don’t work in advertising or marketing), that’s one ad for every 20 seconds of being awake. That’s a lot.

I must admit though, while I’ve been skeptical of the figure, 3,000 suits me just fine. If I have my social media marketing hat on (and I usually do), I can tell people that advertising has reached saturation point and their only hope of getting people to talk about their brand is influencer engagement. If I have my advertising hat on (it’s the one with the propeller on top) I can tell them that the only way they are going to get noticed among the throng is if they have an ad that’s cleverer and more amazing than the rest, and the only way to do that is to have it conjured from the ether by the particular agency I work with/for because this agency has a point of difference, and that is, umm, whatever they decided it was in the internal brand strategy meeting last week, it’ll be on the new business cards anyway, you can read about it then.

Still, despite the fact that I’m a marketing consultant working in an ad agency, I don’t like making things up. I know that if I make things up, sooner or later, I’m going to get caught out. I learned that lesson the hard way when I jumped out the (moving) school bus window in grade nine, got banned from public transport for the rest of the year and had to try and convince Mum and Dad that the sudden urge to ride my bike 15km to school had nothing to do with the fact that they’d got a letter from school saying the principal wanted to see them and that the principal was a very busy lady and there was probably some mistake so I’d be happy to go and have a chat to her about whatever it was she wanted to talk about and we needn’t waste any of their time. Members of the public, much like mums and dads, are pretty good at figuring out when you’re making stuff up. However, unlike mums and dads, members of the public (let’s call them consumers, because we always do) would prefer your tattoo was real, and as a couple of marketing firms have found out lately, if you keep making stuff up, people stop believing what you have to say, even if it does get your client on Sunrise.

So I had to come clean about the 3,000 ads a day figure. Problem was; I couldn’t find any up-to-date research. My textbooks all cited vague surveys from last century. The interwebs cited other interwebs which cited other interwebs which cited the first interwebs. It was like a circular reasoning concert at a creationist convention. It was looking like I would have to do what no blogger had done since Google was invented: research.

I happen to like research. It gets me out of the house. The only problem is, I’m not your average consumer. I don’t listen to commercial radio, I don’t watch TV, I don’t read the newspaper, I avoid public transport if I can possibly help it, I live in a secure building impregnable to door-to-door sales people and I check my email behind a firewall impregnable to spam. I don’t let a lot of advertising into my life because I can’t stand it. I’ve met socialist vegan animal rights activists from Nimbin who were more enthused about throwing on a mink coat and heading out for a Big Mac than I was introducing an average consumer’s dose of mass media into my public broadcasting diet. Still, science is golden, and if I was going to come clean, I was going to have to start counting golden arches.

How much media does the average consumer consume?

Given that I don’t have a team of lab rats, a PhD or backing from a reputable university, a proper scientific study with quantifiable results was never on the cards. Nevertheless, some pre-research research was needed to figure out exactly how much media the average consumer was consuming on an average day, otherwise my results would be completely useless. Luckily Peter Wagstaff, a marketing lecturer from Monash University chimed in with some stats from the government and the results were as follows:

  • 3 hours of commercial television
  • 2 hours of commercial radio
  • 1.2 hours of internet surfing
  • 30 minutes of reading newspapers
  • 20 minutes of reading magazines

Ouch. Poor buggers. Lucky the cricket was on.

There are obviously a lot of ads out there stuck on buildings and cars and people and shop windows and the like, so I’d also have to consume them at the same rate as your average Joe or Joanne. Presuming ‘most’ people have a job and work in a different suburb to their house, which is a pretty fair assumption, I could just do my normal commute from the Brisbane suburb of New Farm to the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley and the data would be representative. Obviously if you’re a farmer in Moree you’re obviously going to see a hell of a lot less ads than a train commuter in Sydney, but given that I walk to work (I don’t walk, I usually drive, but it’s only a kilometer from my house to the office so I’m embarrassed to say I drive and I’m going to lie) in Brisbane that’s probably a fair compromise between the two.

Defining advertising

Now that I had an advertising menu to get through, I needed to define exactly what constituted an ad. There was some debate among friends and fellow marketing professionals/commentators, but the definition for the purposes of this study was as follows:

“A commercial or public-service message that has been paid for (in money, time, effort, or some other sort of tradeoff) with the intention of influencing a purchasing decision”.

So based on that definition, a logo wouldn’t count, unless it had been paid to be in that position. For example, the word ‘Dell’ on my computer wouldn’t count (and it doesn’t count in that sentence) but the 3 logo on the Australian cricket team uniforms would count, but only once, because they’ve paid to have their logo on all the uniforms in one go, not per uniform.

By the same token, if was watching the cricket on the TV, I could only count each stadium billboard once and the same goes for the little Ford logo that popped up with each score – Ford wasn’t paying per impression, they were paying for the spot all day.

Illegal street posters would count because even though they hadn’t been paid for, whoever put them up was taking a risk that they’ll get caught and have to pay a fine – there’s a definite trade-off there. Signs on buildings would only count if they were there to influence a purchasing decision, as opposed to simply informing people who the tenants or owners were.

All of which is open for debate, but the intention of the study was to get a rough indication of the numbers of ads people see and hear each day and find out if the oft-quoted figure of 3,000 was plausible. If you counted every logo you saw as an ad you could easily see many thousands in a day, but that wouldn’t be a fair indication because they’re not really advertisements.

Counting and results

Armed with a neat little tally application on my iPhone, I set off on an average summer day on my journey into average consumer land. I commuted, I watched, I listened, I read. I counted. It was all very average. The numbers rolled in and added up.

Before I started I was certain that television and radio were going to be the most advertising-heavy mediums. All those billboards in the cricket ground, cross promos during the weather on Sunrise, sponsorship slots on score boards, traffic reports, weather maps, segments, not to mention the commercial breaks themselves. How very wrong I was.

While I didn’t keep an exact tally of ad locations (it was hard enough keeping an accurate tally of ads, let alone logging data about each of them) a rough, approximate breakdown of each medium’s percentage of the total was as follows:

  • Outdoor and signage: 40%
  • Internet: 30%
  • TV: 10%
  • Radio: 10%
  • Print media: 10%

Surprisingly, if you live in a city, your best chance of avoiding ads (apart from sleeping, although I’m sure someone will figure that out sooner or later) is watching TV or listening to the radio.

Walk through a retail shopping precinct, do a few Google searches or read the news online and you’ll be thumped with more ads than you can possibly remember. Search ads are arguably more relevant than all others and work because they’re targeting a particular need state with superb accuracy, but there are just so many of them you don’t tend to pay a whole lot of attention. News websites can cram ads in digital crevices so small you fear for the little pixels’ sanity and a stroll through your average city mall is as heavily bombarded as no-mans land on The Somme circa 1917. Spend any amount of time counting ads outdoors or online and you’ll breath a sigh of relief the next time you hear a car insurance promo from a man in a helicopter.

How many ads do you think you see each day? And how much do you think the figure varies from city to city and from urban Australia to rural Australia. Does the level of advertising saturation force marketers to create better ads, encourage them to shout louder, or perhaps a bit of both?


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