Still Ready For Prime Time: How TV Defied The Doomsayers

If you’re talking to a marketing guru and you want to see if they know what they’re on about, there’s one reliable test. Ask them what they think of TV advertising.

If they start talking about how TV is irrelevant or dying, how “nobody” watches it, how TV ads are throwing money away reaching non-customers… then you can safely say thanks, and move quickly on.

Few people seriously dispute that live TV viewing is in decline. But for a while now, the wiser marketers have been quietly pointing out something rather important. TV still matters. And, to the surprise of many, media buyers agree. Our market research platform shows that overnights may be dropping, but the money spent on TV advertising is steady.

Last week Mark Ritson posted this chart on LinkedIn underlining this vital but neglected truth. The surge in spend on digital advertising has indeed been calamitous for traditional media – but that’s print media, not TV. Revenue has collapsed in the last 15 years for newspapers and magazines, which used to be the media of choice for short-term sales activation. But TV spend has been essentially flat.

OK, you might say, but is that because there’s so much TV inventory available that advertisers can get on air cheap? Not at all – in another surprising recent stat, demand for TV advertising is rising. A UBS report last week on TV ad activity concluded: “Panelists expect a very strong upfront. Demand for high quality TV inventory has never been higher. Volumes should be positive and broad based across ad categories.”

In other words, the death of TV advertising has been postponed. Again.

All this seems difficult to square with the behavioural trends we all know about – the rise of Netflix and other streaming services; the huge investments they’ve made in content; and that drop-off in live viewing.

But the rude health of TV isn’t so surprising when you look at it from a branding and communications perspective. There are two massive reasons TV advertising has held up so well.

First, it works. Study after study shows that TV provides greater effectiveness and higher returns than other media. It may not always be sexy,  but it’s a very solid investment.

But more important is the second reason. There is no serious replacement for the things TV advertising is good at. TV is the blue-chip medium for long-term brand building, because it offers very high reach, which creates Fame, Feeling and Fluency among people who aren’t currently using a product.

No other medium can compete for high reach and long-term impact. So much so that marketers with an interest in other media want to push the idea that the marketing fundamentals have changed and that reach and long-term brand-building no longer matter.

So TV advertising defies the odds. The technological and behavioural changes that affect it are real, but that doesn’t mean that anything else can do what TV does. Until a replacement in reach and brand-building potential comes along, TV will be a central part of the marketing mix.

Which means that if you’re a brand owner with an interest in long-term effectiveness, getting intelligence on the quality of your TV ads – and those of your competitors – should be your number one planning priority.

Image (c) 2006 Patrick Haney, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-ND 2.0


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident, creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand testing tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.

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