Smartphones are killing commercials

But those ads have merely migrated to our fingertips

The remote control was supposed to kill off TV ads—audiences would just click away during commercial breaks. And we did, but only enough to make ads louder and more abrasive. Later the VCR was feared to be the commercial’s mortal enemy. We would all just tape shows and fast-forward through the ads. And we did…now and then. The same fears (and hopes) emerged when TiVos and DVRs hit the market. Now we wouldn’t need to pre-tape a whole show—just the first five or ten minutes worth, and then zip past those annoying adverts. But still, no dice. Turns out only 2% of ads ultimately get skipped over this way. Seems we like to watch TV as it comes, and “time-shifting” hardware has proven no match for the 30-second spot.

So what will kill the commercial? Phones.

AdAge reports on how spooky eyeball tracking technology was used in a recent study to measure how often TV viewers get distracted from ads, and by what. 60% of disruptions came by way of viewers’ smartphones. As Brian Monohan writes, “the challenge is not moving one’s thumb to push fast-forward, but rather moving one’s head to look at their smartphone.” Laptops, video games and other “companion media” also had an impact, but nothing near so damaging as phone use.

This is not so surprising. Before smartphones, the ad’s biggest competition was in fact the human being—we would wait until a commercial break to interact with the people we watch television with. In that sense, nothing is really changing—we’re just reading emails and checking social media instead of chatting with our friends and families. But whereas it was frustratingly impossible for advertisers to transfer their ad dollars from TV spots to sponsored live human conversations, GMail, Twitter and Facebook will happily sell brands access to our ad-time chatter.

Look for new “smart” ads that know what shows we’re watching and position their messages accordingly.