Are Commercials a Waste of Money?

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me of an issue I’ve wanted to write about on here for a while: TV commercials.  Are they worth it?

I almost always mute commercials when they come on, unless they’re for something I am already interested in.  I can’t think of any time in my life when I’ve decided to buy something just because I saw a commercial for it.  I generally research any major purchases first.

And then there are the commercials for small things, like soft drinks.  Maybe other people are different, but I don’t see those commercials and go “well, I’ve just got to go buy a [X soft drink] right now.”  My soft drink purchase decisions are made purely on the basis of what’s most convenient; I don’t care about brands enough to spend extra time hunting down a particular drink.

Some say that commercials work subliminally.  Well, maybe.  But how effective can the ads be when they produce no noticeable change in my behavior?  Even if it’s subliminal, I would notice that I suddenly had a desire to go out and buy particular things.

Especially interesting to me are political ads. (With which we are about to be deluged, incidentally)  Is anybody really going to vote based on what a TV ad said?  I just assume that all political ads are telling half-truths at best, and so I tune them out automatically.

Given all that, I have to think that companies are overpaying for ads.  The return on it can’t be that much, can it?   I think a company gets more benefit from announcing at the beginning of a program that they are sponsoring the whole thing without commercial interruption than they do from advertising during it.  Because, in general, commercials annoy the viewer who is just trying to watch something.


  1. Intriguing! and an exceedingly valid question.

    I admit that ad’s for items such as soft drinks, snacks, clothing etc are completely wasted on me. Now were I to stop there and form an opinion, it would be negative. Part of the problem is that I am in the industry so I naturally critique ads and marketing attempts wherever I see them. The products are often lost on me by the time I am done taking the bit of advertising apart.

    I admit that some commercials (just a few) do in fact impact me. While I take most of my information from online articles and research, there is the occasional ad that does inform me – these are few and far between.

    But then I do not watch much Television. Most North Americans do however. Most are also impulsive buyers with a problem saying no. Hence the debt crisis and the obesity epidemic.

    TV is in for some major changes though. One problem is that most ad’s are bad, ineffective, reek of BS or timed very poorly. They simply insult our intelligence or are the epitome of cliche. Another problem is that, in our era of “online”, TV is on the brink of extinction, or at very least drastic revision.

    Do I think TV ad’s are effective? For myself – no. For others? yes, there will always be an audience for tripe. That said the tide is turning and people and moving away from TV in its current form.

    As far as political ads – these define bad advertising. They become so immersed in mud slinging and improbable promises, that the average intelligent voter is jaded and will likely vote for no one (since no one actually stands out in all of the mud). Interesting to think that this may be a part of the declining voter turn out over the past 12 years.

  2. On political ads, the first commenter made a good point. It turns people off to voting, and that’s what the minority party wants since if the all in the majority party voted they’d never win. It’s a way to shut people up, because if you didn’t vote you can’t complain about whoever wins.
    All other advertising is about getting the customer’s attention. On TV that may mean a person or music screaming or no sound at all and words flashed on the screen. Jingles stay in a person’s mind and while shopping that memory kicks in when you reach for one product over another one that’s exactly alike. Shows like America Idol are nothing but an hour long ad for the strategically placed product.
    I love the DVR that lets you hop over comercials if you wait until the show is over and if you watch it the day after it automatically hops over the coms. Even if you mute the commercials you keep an eye on them so you know when to unmute when the show comes back on.

    1. Do you think commercials also work for big items, like cars? I can see that it might make the critical difference when you’re casually selecting stuff at the grocery store and not really thinking about it much, but the process of buying a vehicle is so involved that any slight bias I might have from watching ads is over-ridden by other factors. And yet there are tons of car commercials.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?