Clustering Toward Oblivion

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Back in the 1970’s — almost medieval times — several studies took place to discover the optimum number of commercial announcements that could be aired in a “break” or “cluster” without causing listener fatigue.  Depending on the study you believe, I recall the number was between three and five…let’s call it four.

After the fourth commercial, most people tuned out — either figuratively or literally.  And if the tune out was literal, they often did not come back.

But this was in the day of rigid 30 and 60-second commercials.  Hardly anyone sold 15-second ads, and 10 and 5-second announcements were never sold, much less offered.

Today, we have created commercial breaks of up to 10 ads — strings of 30-second, 15-second, even 10 and 5-second ads — that coagulate into a meaningless jumble of words, sound effects, and music that is ever more easy to tune out.  Of course, the reason for this is revenue.  With the Radio Advertising Bureau’s announcement today that Radio revenues were down 22% compared to the same period last year, the revenue angle is more important than ever before.

However, those same ’70’s studies also indicated something more disturbing.

The length of commercials in a break is less of a factor than the number of ads that comprise the “cluster”.  To most listeners, a 60-second ad is no different than a 30-second ad — it’s just another interruption.  If that perception holds true among today’s listeners, then an eight-ad “cluster” of 15-second announcements is far worse than one of four 30-second ads.  Even though both consist of two minutes of commercial time, the group of 15-second ads is perceived as twice as long.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma, for revenue is king.  Without sufficient dollars coming in, no station can long remain in operation.

And, at the same time, the increasing noise level of “endless” 5, 10, and 15-second ads allows us to commit suicide slowly — driving away listeners to other media choices where commercials are more easily controlled, or ignored.  For once the listeners have departed to other outlets, it becomes increasingly likely they will not return.