Do Ads Wear Out?

  • Testing the Theory of Wear Out
  • Are Marketers Making the Most of Creative?
  • The Value of Ad Testing

System1’s research gives marketers confidence to run long-term campaigns

There are numerous reasons why brands frequently refresh their advertising. Marketing roles typically have high turnover rates and incoming CMOs often see new campaigns and agency reviews as ways to make their mark on a brand. Additionally, marketers are much closer to the creative than audiences will ever be. They often worry that their ads will quickly feel repetitive to the general public because they themselves tire of the advertising after a short period of time. If audiences tune out these messages, the opportunity for driving sales and brand building is greatly diminished.

But is this approach of continuous innovation truly necessary? Could the investment put into regularly developing new creative be better spent? With recession worries at a high, it’s essential for brand managers to understand how to maximise their budgets and help their organisations successfully emerge from this difficult period. As Mark Ritson noted in System1’s recession webinar:

“It’s a failure that so many marketers pull so many of their campaigns prematurely when their best days are yet to come.”

Recently, System1 set out to settle the industry’s wear-out debate once and for all.

Testing the Theory of Wear Out

We tested the theory of advertising wear out in two ways. System1’s Star Rating, on a scale of 1 to 5, predicts the brand building potential of ads. It is derived from the emotional response viewers have to the creative, with happiness being the most effective at building long-term growth.

Our first analysis looked at the Star Rating of 50,000 ads. Some ads were tested very soon after they launched, and others were tested long after their initial air date (going back up to 7,000 days). If the theory of wear out was true, older ads would perform worse when tested, as audiences would be more familiar with and tired of them. As Figure 1 shows, there is little evidence of ads wearing out. The baseline average score – for ads tested within 50 days of initial airdate – was 2.2-Stars. Every other age segment we looked at received a similar score – between 2.0 Stars and 2.4 Stars.

(Figure 1)

However, this aggregate analysis alone does not disprove the idea of wear-out. If brands are accurately detecting which ads are wearing out with viewers, and removing them from air, they wouldn’t appear in our analysis. Perhaps only effective ads are given the chance to get old.

So, we next wanted to compare how the same ads perform over time, including during key moments that may impact the overall mood of audiences and therefore the way that ads score. First, we tested 50 UK ads and 50 US ads shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, then we tested them during the first lockdown in March 2020. The third round of testing occurred in January 2021 when COVID had a resurgence and the final testing took place in October 2022 when recession fears were growing.

(Figure 2)

Despite the remarkable times, ad testing scores hardly change over these nearly two years, as Figure 2 demonstrates. The correlation between our scores in January 2020 (pre-pandemic) and our scores in October 2022 is 0.9 – the data is almost identical. If wear out was an issue, ads would see a steady decrease in Star Rating as time progresses for both high- and low-scoring ads.

There are specific ads which have lost some of their effectiveness, but there are just as many ads that have improved over the testing period. We can confidently say that ineffective ads (those in the 1-Star and 2-Star range) don’t get better the longer they run, though better performing ads can see their ratings increase over time, especially if they include right-brained features like recurring characters or slogans (see Figure 3). This demonstrates the importance of making strong brand-building ads that can continue to drive mental availability.

(Figure 3)

Are Marketers Making the Most of Creative?

Knowing that there is not strong evidence of wear out, we sought to understand whether marketers are getting the most from their creative, or whether they’re giving up on it prematurely. We looked at another data set to see how long ads run for, and the corresponding Star Ratings for these ads. We analysed more than 31,000 ads in the US and more than 15,000 ads in the UK.

In the US, on average, we found that ads run for much longer periods than in the UK. And there’s good news for brands – ads with a higher Star Rating run for longer periods than less effective ads. In fact, 5-Star US ads enjoying a 25% longer lifespan on average than ineffective 1-Star ads.

However, in the UK the reverse is true – on average the higher the Star Rating, the shorter the ad runs for. A 5-Star ad in the UK airs for 71 days on average, compared to more than 3 months (95 days) for 1-Star ads. Marketers in the UK are often investing in the wrong campaigns that won’t move the needle on sales or brand building.

Of course, there are certain trends that may be impacting this outcome in the UK. Christmas ads, which tend to score higher than the average ad in the UK, run for shorter periods of time due to their seasonality. There are also events in the US that can affect the duration of an ad’s tenure. Some Super Bowl ads, like those that are directly tied to the theme of American football or particularly buzzworthy, premier during the event and aren’t continuously leveraged beyond the game. For example, Coinbase’s QR code ad scored 1-Star and only aired during the game. Thus, there are exceptions in each market.

The Value of Ad Testing

While it’s true that some brands do have long-running ads, like Coke’s Christmas trucks and M&M’s 1996 “They Do Exist!” commercial, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see creative used again and again.

How can marketers have confidence that their ads are worth continued investment? Ad testing reveals not only the short-term sales potential but also the long-term brand building potential of creative. As our research shows, a 4- or 5-Star ad can work for a brand for years, and perhaps even improve over time. Rather than continually reinvent creative, brands can use money they would have spent on new concepts to finetune their media plans and make their ads reach further.

Similarly, ad testing can provide a warning that creative needs a pivot or a complete overhaul if it’s scoring in the 1- or 2-Star range. Gaining insights on how audiences feel about an ad and what’s driving these emotions allows brands to make adjustments that will enhance the long-term effectiveness of ads.