The Extraordinary Cost of Dull

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity recently brought the industry together to celebrate and award creativity, learn from leading experts, and discuss what’s next for marketing and advertising. Some of the biggest names in the industry took the stage to share research and inspire audiences with sessions like “Entertain or Die”, “Creativity Unleashed” and “Advertising That Sparks Emotion”.  

Meanwhile, our very own Jon Evans, chief customer officer at System1 and host of the Uncensored CMO podcast, along with Adam Morgan, founder and CEO at eatbigfish, took a slightly different approach. They brought a dose of dull and a bit of boring, to the flashy festival, all to make a very important point about the state (and cost) of advertising effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) today.  

Read on to learn more about “The Extraordinary Cost of Dull: Why Boring Advertising Must Die” and download the research in full.  

Boring is a Big Problem 

At System1, we’ve tested more than 100,000 ads and asked what people feel about them. We know that Happiness is the biggest driver of commercial success. This is because if an ad makes people feel good, it’s more memorable and more effective at building positive associations with a brand. Negative emotions – Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Contempt – make that far less likely. 

But all emotions – both positive and negative – can help drive short-term sales. The more intense the emotion, the more likely a brand is to capture attention, cut through, and increase salience for people in the ‘buying window’ for a category. 

Yet most ads leave audiences feeling nothing. And that’s bad news for advertisers. Neutrality has no emotional intensity; it’s the absence of emotion. For the average UK TV ad, 52% of responses are Neutral. In the US, the situation’s a little better, but at 47% Neutrality is still by far the most common response to an ad. 

Source: Average Emotional Response of All US TV ads (n>57,000) tested in Test Your Ad Premium since 2017, from 7.9 million nationally representative respondent ratings

Together with Adam and Peter Field, we sought to better understand the Cost of Dull. How would brands need to adjust their media spend to overcome the negative impact that Neutrality has on advertising effectiveness? And how can advertisers break away from boring, even in categories that may seem a bit duller?

Dull on Arrival

Neutral ads don’t directly harm brands. They can raise Brand Fluency, increase mental availability, and trigger sales. But they are less effective at accomplishing this than an ad which sparks positive emotional response or one with high emotional intensity. And that means spending on a neutral ad will be less efficient.

The problem of Dull isn’t damage. It’s waste. It costs more – sometimes a lot more – to get the same business impact with a Dull ad as with an interesting one.

To understand the Cost of Dull, we analysed the Test Your Ad database in a new way, looking only at levels of Neutral response to a commercial. To illustrate the progressively increasing cost of making Dull advertising, we then split the data into four equal quartiles:

Source: Average Emotional Response of All US TV ads (n>57,000) tested in Test Your Ad Premium since 2017. c14,300 ads per quartile.

  • Non-dull – Despite the name these ads still generate plenty of Neutral response – on average 39% of responses in the UK, and 32% in the US.
  • Moderately Dull – As Neutrality rises, Happiness and Surprise start to suffer, with 49% Neutrality (UK) and 44% (US).
  • Very Dull – Neutrality is the typical response to an ad – 56% in the UK and 51% in the US, with Happiness and Surprise dipping further.
  • Extremely Dull – Any response other than Neutrality is unusual – the average Extremely Dull UK ad attracts 65% Neutrality, and in the US it’s 62%.

An important finding: higher Neutrality only really has an impact on positive emotions – Happiness and Surprise. The level of negative emotion, including Anger, Contempt, Disgust, stays constant. So, playing safe is a poor strategy. On average, all ads, whatever their Neutrality level, generate some negative feeling. You can’t avoid it, and if you try, you risk increasing Neutral response and killing off positive emotion.

Quantifying the Dull Quartiles

An interesting ad is more effective, more memorable, and so its media spend goes further. When you invest in an ordinary ad, you need to spend more to get the same results.

To quantify this extraordinary cost, we used Nielsen TV spend data to see how much is allocated to each level of advertising neutrality. We extrapolated the totals to the estimated figure for overall TV advertising spend for 2022.

Then we looked at the Star Rating of each ad, which predicts the creative’s potential to drive long-term market share growth. For the sake of a consistent model, we’ve given every brand an identical market share (5%) and assumed it has 15% share of voice, giving the +10 ESOV (Excess Share Of Voice) that Test Your Ad predictions are validated for.

Not every ad will attract that level of ESOV or investment, but this lets us ask a really important question: how much extra money would brands need to spend to make a Moderately, Very or Extremely Dull ad match the performance of a Non-dull one?

First the good news: marketers often know when they’ve got an interesting ad, and invest accordingly. The non-dull quartile attracts the highest level of media spend and the proportion of spend drops as neutrality increases.

Our estimate for the total UK spend on TV ads is £5.11bn, and the Non-dull quartile (25% of the ads) accounts for £1.61bn of that (31.5% of the spend). In the US, the proportions are similar – a total spend on TV of $66.1bn, and $21.2bn of that (32% of spend) goes on Non-dull ads.

On the opposite end, Extremely Dull ads (the bottom quartile) attract only £0.95bn (18%) of UK TV spend and $10.5bn (15.8%) of US TV dollars. But 10 billion dollars and almost a billion pounds is unequivocally a lot of money to spend on advertising that doesn’t engage viewers.

Given the levels of share and ESOV outlined above (+10 points of ESOV), we’d predict a brand with 5% market share airing Non-dull ads would see annualised gains of 1.3 points of share each year. That same brand making that same high investment into Extremely Dull ads – the lowest quartile – would see only 0.1 points of share gain each year. And lower investment – reduced ESOV – would see that marginal impact diminish even further.

In total, to get the same predicted results as the Non-dull ads, brands showing Extremely Dull ads would need to invest a staggering $109bn extra. That’s considerably more than the entire annual spend on US TV advertising.

In the UK, where Non-dull ads with +10 ESOV and 5% share might expect 1.26 points of annualised share gain, Extremely Dull ads with the same high investment would only see 0.13 points of share gain. They’d need to spend £7.94bn to see the same results.

When you factor in the Very Dull and Moderately Dull ads and the additional spend you’d need to have them all perform as well as Non-dull ads, the total cost rises to $189bn in the US and £13.29bn in the UK.

Fortunately, there’s a cheaper option than trying to squeeze effectiveness out of a boring commercial. Make interesting ads.

The full Cost of Dull whitepaper explores how to do that.

It includes four major factors driving Dullness (i.e., the “Four Horsemen of the Dullocalpyse”), questions you can ask to prevent Dull ads, creative features identified by Orlando Wood that help entertain audiences and inspiring examples of brands that are cutting through what might at first be considered dull categories. We also take a closer look at the differences between the cost of dull for B2C and B2B ads.