The finding: Though people say they prefer to watch television without ads, they sometimes enjoy programs that have commercial interruptions more.
The study: Leif Nelson, in collaboration with Tom Meyvis of New York University’s Stern School and Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School, showed subjects three kinds of TV shows: Taxi episodes, nature documentaries, and Bollywood programs. Some watched the shows with commercials, some without. Subjects who watched TV with commercials reported greater enjoyment—and were willing to pay more for DVD collections of shows by the same director—than subjects who watched without interruptions.
The challenge: Could those annoying ads actually enhance television shows? Professor Nelson, defend your research.
Nelson: Not only did people report greater enjoyment when shows were interrupted by commercials, but they did so regardless of the quality of the commercials. In one of our six studies, we asked subjects to rate the ads relative to the shows, and there was no correlation between badly rated ads and lower enjoyment of the programs. People enjoyed shows that had commercials more, whether those commercials were good or bad. And if they watched shows with commercials, people were willing to pay 30% more for a DVD compilation of programs by the same director.
HBR: Frankly, we’re struggling with this finding. It flies in the face of clear media trends: DVRs that help us zip through commercials are wildly popular; networks use “limited commercial interruptions” as a selling point; people pay money for ad-free cable programming on channels like HBO.
Just because we end up enjoying something more when it has commercials doesn’t mean we expect to enjoy it more that way. DVRs appeal to us because prior to our viewing experience, we think we want no ads. It’s only after we have the experience that we realize it’s more enjoyable when it’s interrupted.
What is it about commercials that increases enjoyment?
Nothing, actually. It’s not the commercial itself, it’s the interruption. The phenomenon we think is at work here is adaptation. The easiest example of adaptation is a massage chair. The longer a massage goes on, the more you get used to it. You adapt. But if it stops briefly, then starts again, it retriggers that initial enjoyment: “Oh yeah, this massage feels great.” People report enjoying interrupted massages more even though they predict they’ll like uninterrupted ones more. There’s substantial work that shows this effect over and over, and it’s for both good and bad experiences. If you buy a luxury car, it’s fantastic coming off the lot, but later it’s just a car. Jail is incomprehensibly horrible the first day. Eventually, it’s less awful.
But if you let that prisoner out for a day…
That’d be practically cruel. You’d stop the adaptation and retrigger those initial feelings about jail when they had to go back.
Is adaptation a universal effect? Should our office meetings have “commercial interruptions”?
It is universal, but I wouldn’t recommend meeting interruptions. Remember that the effect doesn’t apply only to positive experiences; for every massage chair, there’s a kid practicing scales on a violin. If you interrupt that adaptation, it’s going to resurface all those unpleasant feelings that accompanied the first moments you heard the squealing strings. The problem for the guy holding the 90-minute meeting—I’m going to go ahead and predict that’s more of a violin scales experience than a massage chair experience—is that if you interrupt the adaptation, you make it worse when you start again. On the flip side, sometimes you’re trying to create pleasurable experiences for your employees. If you have social events that are 90 minutes long, you might notice that after a half hour some people are kind of done and start taking off. But if you build in interruptions, people will enjoy the gathering more, for a longer time.
You still haven’t accounted for the popularity of, say,The Sopranos and all the subscription-channel programs. Don’t we pay to get those shows without commercials?
Contemporary shows like The Sopranos might be interrupting themselves. Remember, it’s not the commercial that increases the enjoyment, it’s the interruption. These shows often run six or more parallel plots and constantly shuffle between them. One plot interrupts another. We saw this effect with one of our more elaborate studies, which compared enjoyment of different types of Bollywood musical numbers. The ones that were complicated and unpredictable and seemed to interrupt themselves got better ratings than the ones that had more-linear narratives.
Some credit HBO for breakthrough storytelling. I might argue that for HBO to be successful, it had to create this kind of storytelling, because people wouldn’t have enjoyed traditional TV narratives as much if they were uninterrupted for 50 minutes. And if they didn’t enjoy them as much, they probably wouldn’t pay to subscribe.
Does anything dull this adaptation effect?
Age. The effect is far more pronounced in younger people. This is consistent with the idea that as people get older they need less stimulation to get enjoyment. They adapt more slowly.
What are you doing next? Trying to prove we actually love the dentist?
I don’t think so. We’re working with a large TV network, which is replicating the study in its market research. They’re actually thinking about the programming implications for this, which is exciting to me. This project suggests there’s a possibility of making TV more efficient and effective—for the studio, the network, the advertiser, and the consumer. Everyone goes home happy.