If you feel like TV commercials have become louder, faster, and busier—in a word, more energetic—you’re correct. A Kellogg study of more than 27,000 ads shows that the energy of commercials has increased over time.
And overall, more energetic ads do keep viewers watching longer—particularly for certain types of programming.
Such is the conclusion of research by professor of marketing Lakshman Krishnamurthi, along with PhD student Yingkang Xie at Kellogg, former Kellogg PhD student and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford Joonhyuk Yang (now an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame) and Purush Papatla, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee . They were able to determine this by cleverly emulating a system that Spotify uses to rate the energy level of songs.
“Ad content is an ultrahigh-dimensional monster,” Yang says. “You could measure thousands of different elements within an ad. But our approach focused on one feature—energy—and we made a careful effort to validate what energy is and whether we could find any interesting patterns.”
While advertisers have less say in how people watch commercials on programs that are streamed or recorded, this study shows that, at least for live programming, advertisers can influence viewers’ attention. “They do have a way to keep viewers tuned in,” Krishnamurthi says.
Understanding Commercial Viewing Habits
The notion that ads have become louder and busier is not new. In the early 2000s, many advertisers increased the sound volume of their television commercials to catch viewers’ attention. This led to the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act in 2010. Now, commercials are required to have no more than the average sound volume of the programs in which they are shown.
So, advertisers found other ways to increase the energy of their ads—often through intense visuals and noisy music. Previous research showed that more than 80 percent of commercials on Hulu were rated as energetic.
But previous studies of energetic ads tend to rely on small sample sizes or viewers in a laboratory setting, making it challenging to determine the overall impact of these new energetic ads on viewers.
To get at the bigger picture, the Kellogg team used a large-scale data set of TV commercials airing in people’s homes.
This data set, from iSpot.tv, tracked 9 million televisions from September 2015 to August 2018. The company relies on automatic content-recognition technology to detect whether an ad is being played on the screen, which brand is being advertised, and what is being shown during the ad. Anytime a participating television is turned on, this information is tracked, down to the second. That allowed researchers to see the exact moment when an ad was interrupted, either through changing the channel or shutting off the television. (The data set only includes viewers who were watching live television, and the researchers had no data on who was watching—just that the TV was on.)
This gave the researchers a data set of 27,000 commercials that aired on the five major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and CW) in the United States. They also collected and analyzed 3,077 commercials that aired during the Super Bowl between 1969 and 2020, in a data set available from adland.tv.
Defining Energetic Ads
Next, the researchers needed to measure the energy level of the 30,000 ads. But how could they do that without viewing and rating each one?
It turns out that such a measure of energy already existed through Spotify, the music-streaming service. Spotify uses algorithms to quantify the characteristics of songs for such features as danceability, acousticness, and tempo. Energy is one of these characteristics, which Spotify defines as “a perceptual measure of intensity and powerful activity released throughout the track. Typical energetic tracks feel fast, loud, and noisy.”
Spotify’s energy-measuring algorithm is proprietary, but the researchers were able to reverse-engineer it with a data set of more than 13,000 songs from the Free Music Archive plus help from music analysis tool Librosa. They used machine-learning techniques to find the right set of auditory features to construct the energy levels of audio and compared that with Spotify’s measure.
Once they verified their algorithm, they extracted the audio from the 27,000 TV commercials to analyze the ads’ energy levels, not only for the music, but also speech and nonmusical sounds.
But this reverse-engineered algorithm only measured the energy level of the commercials’ audio. The researchers had no large-scale way to measure the energy level of visual elements. So, they designed an Amazon MTurk study in which 2,432 participants watched randomly selected ads and rated their energy levels. Some participants only heard the audio of the commercials, some watched only visuals, while others watched the commercials as normal. They then rated the energy levels of what they had watched or heard.
The researchers found that the audio energy levels correlated highly with visual energy levels, leading them to be more confident that their large-scale audio analysis translated well into an overall measure of energy.
“We thought that there might be some variation in the energy level of the audio and video content, but it turns out that it aligned very well,” Yang says.
High Energy Ads Hold Viewers’ Attention—Most of the Time
Overall, the researchers found that the energy level of ads increased 33 percent between 2015 and 2018. Super Bowl ads, an energetic bunch to start with, had an energy-level increase of 20 percent between 1969 and 2020.
They also found that energy levels of commercials vary throughout the day, dipping in the early morning and peaking at 11 p.m. on weekdays. Commercials shown on weekend afternoons are more energetic than those aired on weekdays.
The product category of the ad often determined its energy level. They found that ads for trucks, sport utility vehicles, entertainment, and retailers tended to be fast, loud, and noisy, while ads for politics, government, and education had the lowest energy levels. Ads aired during sports programs had the highest energy on average, while ads within news programs had the lowest energy levels.
So, what was the impact of ad energy on consumer behavior?
For each commercial, the researchers gathered data on the percentage of viewers who stayed tuned in for at least 25, 50, and 75 percent of the ad’s duration.
They found that, overall, higher energy levels resulted in fewer people tuning out, after controlling for network, day of the week, and the time within the program that the ad aired. This additional viewing time for energetic ads translated into about 5,079 more TVs that tuned in for at least 75 percent of an ad’s length.
“We thought that at some point, viewers might get annoyed if ads were too energetic,” Xie says. “It surprised us that it didn’t seem to be the case overall.” In fact, in general, it was the opposite.
But context proved important, the researchers found.
Energetic commercials for food and beverage products were likely to be viewed for longer when placed in entertainment and news programs but not in sports programs. Energetic health and beauty commercials were also likely to be viewed for a shorter time when placed in sports programs. That could imply that advertisers need to be cognizant of context when placing energetic ads in certain programming.
Overall, the researchers say their findings give advertisers another tool to capture viewers’ attention without driving them away.
“Advertisers know now that they can’t increase the loudness of their ads, so they are looking for other ways to gain viewers’ attention,” Krishnamurthi says. “Our research shows increasing the energy of ads can do this, and now advertisers can continue to tweak their ads to find the right fit.”