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Recent findings indicate that competitive messages can reduce the memorability of information from television ads. In this article, the causes and potential effects of competitive clutter are described, and an enhanced analysis of competitive overlap in network television is provided. Data from an automated ad tracking system are used to analyze competitive clutter levels in recent network advertising. Strategic responses to the cluttered and competitive media environment are presented for new and mature brands. These responses involve changes to common ad targeting, creative, media, and research practices.

Consumers often encounter ads for directly competing brands within television programs. For example, viewers might encounter ads for three pain relievers or four similar import autos during an hour of network TV. Research findings suggest that this competitive clutter makes it difficult for viewers to remember which brands were advertised and what the ads communicated about each brand (c.f., Keller, 1987, 1991; Kent and Allen, 1993, 1994).

Advertisers are increasingly concerned that competitive clutter harms the effectiveness of television ads (Lipman, 1992; Mandese, 1991). However, few analyses of competitive overlap in television programming are available, and better knowledge of strategic responses to competitive clutter is needed. Kent (1993) assessed competitive clutter levels by network and day-part in a sample of 1991 network television advertising. The findings showed that up to 40 percent of ads aired in hours with competitive advertising. Moreover, the competitive clutter level was higher in prime time versus daytime, although many fewer ads were shown.

The present research traces the causes and consequences of ad clutter, provides an enhanced analysis of competitive overlap in television advertising, and develops strategies to increase ad effectiveness in the current environment. Analysis of a larger sample of network television time was made possible through the use of data from Competitive Media Reporting's automated ad tracking system. Actionable responses to competitive clutter are presented for new and mature brands; these responses involve changes to common ad targeting, creative, media, and research practice.

The Causes and Quantity of Television Ad Clutter

Two trends produced the current high levels of ad clutter. The first trend was a shift to shorter ad formats (see Figure 1), which began in the mid l960s as a movement from the standard 60-second ad to 30-second units. The 30-second commercial became the standard unit by 1975. However, the gradual reduction in average ad lengths continued in the 1980s, as 15s began to replace 30s (Foltz, 1990). The percentage of 15s continued to rise throughout the 1980s; this rapid shift was encouraged by the networks' policy of pricing 15-second units at half of the 30-second rate (Ephron, 1992a). By the late 1980s, over a third of network ads were only 15 seconds long, and the length of the average network television ad had fallen to about half of the 1960s level (see Figure 1).

The reduction in average ad lengths had a tremendous impact on the television commercial environment. Given the magnitude of this decrease, the number of ads per hour would have doubled in 20 years even if the amount of commercial time per hour had remained constant.

Of course, the amount of commercial time was not held at the 1960s level of about five minutes per hour in prime time. The second trend that worsened ad clutter involved gradual increases in commercial time, particularly after legal challenges to the NAB Code (Cobb-Walgren, 1990). As Figure 2 shows, the amount of commercial time grew to over seven minutes per prime time hour by 1992; this represents a 40 percent increase since the mid 1960s.

The increase in commercial time acted with the halving of average ad lengths to triple the number of ads shown per hour (see Figure 3). So, while primetime ads of the 1960s were shown in a context of five to seven ads per hour, current ads are surrounded by over twenty commercials. Due to the longer commercial times in daytime, over 30 ads per hour are now routinely shown (all figures exclude an average of 4 to 7 promos per hour). Viewers' zapping of ads and channel-browsing can lead to exposure to between-channel clutter and, thus, affect the competitive overlap in the ads they see. As Figures 2 and 3 show, the increases in ad clutter are primarily a consequence of marketers' adoption of shorter ad units, although gradual increases in network commercial time also added to clutter (cf., Ephron, 1992a).

The Effects of Ad Proliferation

Not surprisingly, advertisers are concerned that increased clutter has reduced the value of high-cost television commercial; (Lipman, 1992; Mandese, 1991). Their concerns have been encouraged by reports providing detailed longitudinal data on the commercial environment (e.g., AAAA ANA, 1992). Interestingly, these reports focus on the escalation of ad time rather than the greater concomitant increases in ad quantities. This focus on commercial time can obscure important aspects of the changed ad climate.

For several reasons, the quantity of ads shown may provide a better indication of the harm done by increased clutter than the amount of commercial time. First, ad avoidance may be encouraged when more ads are shown in each pod (e.g., when two 13s replace a 30-second ad). Most consumers have remotes and many program choices. If they tend to zap uninteresting commercials, then the airing of more consecutive ads should make them less likely to remain through the pod. Moreover, the results of controlled studies conducted among subjects unarmed with cable and remotes suggest other negative effects of increased ad loads. Across several studies, researchers have found that increased clutter can reduce attention, recall, and persuasion (c.f., Cobb, 1985; Mord and Gilson, 1985; Webb, 1979; Webb and Ray, 1979).

There is another reason to consider ad quantities rather than commercial time when attempting to gauge the impact of increased clutter. This reason is competitive overlap, which increases when more ads are shown. Competitive clutter increases with ad loads because the marketers of directly competing brands often target the same consumers (Clancy and Shulman, 1991; Jones, 1992). For example, gross demographic categories, such as women 18 to 49 or women 25 to 54, are often used to target television ads for packaged goods (Assael and Poltrack, 1991; Kent, 1993). Given that network policies only prevent competitive ads from appearing within pods, program selection by common demographic categories results in competitive clutter. As Jones (1992) notes, with current targeting practices, "In the majority of cases, directly competitive brands use substantially the same combination of media for their campaigns."

Why Competitors' Ads Should Do More Harm to Effectiveness

The effects of competitive overlap in television programming may be considered by reference to "interference theory," the leading model of forgetting in memory research (Burke and Srull, 1988; Keller, 1987, 1991). Interference theory holds that forgetting is caused by inhibition resulting from the retention of related information (Martindale, 1991) rather than being caused by unrelated learning or simple decay. Related information learned before or after tested information may affect recall. Importantly, the decrement in recall is a function of the conceptual similarity between test and potentially interfering information (Martindale, 1991).

This principle suggests that ad recall should decline when ads for competing brands are introduced into the media environment. Indeed, a series of advertising studies report such effects on ad claim recall measures cued with the product class and brand name. For example, Burke and Srull (1988) observed that claim recall was inhibited by either prior or subsequent exposure to ads for competing brands. Keller (1987, 1991) also observed lessened claim recall as ads for competing brands were introduced. The observation that recall is not affected by increased clutter with no competitive overlap (Brown and Rothschild, 1993) also suggests that category overlap is the crucial factor affecting ad memorability. Moreover, recent findings indicate that ads for low-awareness brands are particularly vulnerable to competitive interference in claim recall (Kent and Allen, 1994), and that competitive clutter reduces brand-name recall for even highly familiar brands (Kent and Allen, 1993). Given these effects, it is important to learn more about the degree of competitive clutter in television advertising.

An Enhanced Analysis of Competitive Clutter

An expanded analysis of overall and competitive clutter in network television was conducted with data from Competitive Media Reporting's automated ad tracking system.

Method. Data. Logs of all advertisements shown by the "big three" networks during the week of June 20, 1993, were obtained from the MediaWatch system. This fully automated system continuously monitors network, cable, and spot television advertising in 75 markets. The audio and video signals of all ads are digitally sampled and electronically checked against a central database of known commercials; new ads are identified and classified as they appear. For each ad shown, data including the product category, brand, producer, air time, and ad length are recorded. All ads shown by the three networks during 20 prime-time and 20 daytime hours were counted and examined for competitive overlap. Thus, the advertising from 120 total hours of television is considered in the data.

Procedure. Because the degree of memory interference between competitive ads should be predicted by the similarity of the brands, ads were classified as "competitive" only when the featured brands were in a common physical form and might reasonably be substituted (Kent, 1993). Thus, ads for hot and cold cereals were not counted in the competitive clutter figures, because the products, although likely substitutes, are in different physical forms. Within-category products in a common form but unlikely to be substituted, such as Volvo and Chevrolet sedans, also were not counted as competitors. Given that competitive interference has been observed in experimental studies employing less stringent similarity criteria (e.g., Burke and Srull, 1988). use of this procedure should lead to a conservative estimate of competitive overlap in television advertising.

Two or more ads for one brand were often shown within an hour of television. However, if an ad for a brand meeting the similarity criteria was present, only one of the double spotted ads was counted in the competitive clutter data. Ads for multiple within-category brands from a common producer, such as GM cars, were counted in the competitive clutter figures if the similarity conditions were met.

Analysis. The data were partitioned by daypart and programmer, and examples of heavily cluttered categories were noted. A series of ANOVA analyses and a priori contrasts were used to analyze the data for overall and competitive clutter.

Results. Overview. The data demonstrate that competitive clutter is greater in prime time than daytime although fewer ads are shown. These findings indicate that the degree of competitive overlap is much greater in expensive prime-time television.

Overall Clutter Levels. Table 1 and Figure 4 present the observed number of ads per hour and degree of competitive overlap observed. In daytime television, each network showed slightly over 30 ads per hour; this finding is consistent with those of recent examinations of ad clutter (c.f., AAAA/ANA, 1992; Kent, 1993). No significant differences between the networks were observed. The three-network average clutter level in prime time was about 22 ads. This is a significantly lower quantity of ads than was shown in daytime (F (1, 118) = 262.42, p [less than] .01). As in the daytime data, no significant differences between the networks were observed.

These figures may underestimate the actual quantity of promotional messages shown, as an average of four to seven network promos per hour were excluded from the data. Recent increases in the number and total length of network promos have drawn criticism from advertisers concerned about long breaks between program segments (Goldman, 1994).

Competitive Clutter Levels. Table 1 presents data on the degree of competitive overlap between ads shown by the networks. Table 2 presents a few vivid examples of competitive clutter by specific product categories. As Table 2 suggests, consumers exposed to ads for three or more competing brands within a program may be quite confused about which claims were made for the various brands. Table 3 lists the 10 general product categories (e.g., automotive and ready-to-eat foods) which accounted for the highest percentages of the logged commercials.

In the daytime, the average network competitive clutter level was about 22 percent. Competitive overlap averaged under 20 percent for ABC and CBS, while NBC had a higher competitive clutter rate of about 30 percent (F (1, 59) = 9.56, p [less than] .05). In prime time, the three networks averaged approximately 28 percent of ads with in-hour messages for direct competitors. Thus, competitive clutter levels were higher in prime time than in daytime (F (1, 118) = 26.64, p [less than] .05). The observation of greater competitive overlap in prime time, when many fewer ads are run, indicates that the concentration of ads for competitors is substantially higher than in daytime. A similar effect was noted in the previous assessment of network competitive clutter by daypart (Kent, 1993). Approximately 25 percent of the prime-time ads shown by ABC and CBS were run with in-hour messages for direct competitors. As in the daytime data, NBC had a higher prime-time rate of competitive clutter--about 35 percent--than the poo led average of the other two networks (F (1, 59) 7.54, p [less than] .05).

Managerial Responses to Competitive Clutter

The findings provide empirical evidence that high levels of overall and competitive clutter are present in network television. Further fragmentation of the television audience by narrow-interest programming (e.g., on fiber-optic cable) could worsen competitive clutter.

Advertising Management for Cluttered Media. Advertisers can respond to the high levels of overall and competitive clutter by altering their ad targeting, creative, media planning, and research practices.

Media Buying, Creative, and Research Practices. Advertisers can't bring back the low-clutter television environment, but they can modify their tactics to increase ad effectiveness in the present context. First, syndicated data allow for ready assessment of category and key competitor advertising and can be used to determine which programs or networks tend to run many ads for competing brands. If these programs are bought, competitive clutter levels could be used in rate negotiations, as General Motors has done in recent years (Brunelli and Kiley, 1992). A different approach would be to negotiate for category exclusivity, which some cable networks provide for realistic premiums or commitments (Fahey, 1992; Stern, 1993).

Advertisers should seek to create distinctive executions relative to competitive messages; this may be most important for new brands (Kent and Allen, 1994). And finally, ads should be copytested in realistic (i.e., cluttered and competitive) media to assess whether viewers have difficulty remembering claims or tend to misattribute claims or messages to more-familiar competing brands (Keller, 1993; Lipman, 1990). As Ephron (1994) notes, "It is discouraging how often 'other brand' claims, when they are important enough to be remembered, are attributed to the category leader."

Reconsider the Use of Demographic Targeting. In recent years media audiences have fragmented and the number of advertised brands has increased (Jones, 1992; Mandese, 1994). When more products are advertised in an expanded set of programs, more precise targeting becomes possible. However, marketers of competing brands still tend to target similar consumer groups. For example, ads for diverse types of packaged-goods products are bought by targeting women 18 to 49 or 25 to 54 (Clancy and Shulman, 1991; Mandese 1994). Competing brands' use of these common demographic targets in program selection causes competitive clutter. Moreover, the use of common demographic targets increases the CPMs of selected programs.

Use of an alternate method to select programs may reduce the competitive clutter surrounding a brand's messages and therefore enhance ad memorability (Kent and Allen, 1994). Abandonment of standard targeting tools may not compromise ad effectiveness, because demographic targeting isn't particularly successful in reaching heavy users of a brand (Clancy and Shulman, 1991; Ephron, 1992b). The ineffectiveness of traditional demographic targeting may explain why ad campaigns that change the target audience are more likely to generate sales increases (Information Resources, Inc., 1991).

Network television programs can be selected with brand or category purchase rates rather than their imprecise demographic correlates (Assael and Poltrack, 1991). This approach involves use of increasingly available integrated data on household viewing habits and category purchases. Purchase-rate targeting can result in selection of a different program mix than standard demographic targeting (Assael and Poltrack, 1993). Because most ads are targeted with demographics, this method should place ads in media with less competitive clutter and, thus, enhance ad memorability. Independent of this benefit, purchase-rate targeting improves delivery of current users, the consumers who typically drive the long-term sales effect of successful television advertising (Information Resources, Inc., 1991; Ehrenberg, 1974; Tellis, 1988).

Consider Increased Use of Short Ads. It may seem ironic for an article on ad clutter to suggest that marketers consider increased use of short ads. Indeed, this and other research has treated short ads as the primary cause of ad clutter. Short units receive this treatment because substantial evidence indicates that the near three-fold increase in the number of ads shown per hour, largely driven by reductions in ad length, can harm ad effectiveness. However, the charge of reduced effectiveness is based upon comparison of messages placed in the current environment (i.e., over 20 ads per hour in prime time with about 25 percent competitive overlap) with messages placed in previous environments (e.g., in 1980, about a dozen ads with less overlap).

Under current network pricing policies, advertisers have the option of replacing 30-second ads with two 15s. Therefore, network 30-second ads should be used only when the best alternative 15-second execution is less than half as effective. Substantial evidence suggests that short ads are more efficient. For example, 15-second ads, which cost half the 30-second rate in network TV, often produce recall scores well over 50 percent of the average for the longer format (c.f., McCollum Spielman, 1989; Singh and Cole, 1993). Singh and Cole's findings suggest that short ads, which are sometimes held to be most effective in reminder messages for familiar brands, can be cost-effective in communicating ad claims for low-awareness brands. The higher reach levels made possible through the use of 15-second ads may help to offset competitive clutter effects on campaign effectiveness.

Buy Spot TV for Low-Awareness Brands. Low-awareness brands appear to be particularly susceptible to competitive interference effects (Kent and Allen, 1994). This vulnerability may play a role in the high failure rate of new products Ad campaigns for new or low-budget brands are often planned with strategies (e.g., network buys and fighting) that may be more appropriate for mature, high-budget brands. Moreover, the use of typical category demographics targets for low-awareness brands leads to selection of programs with competitive messages.

Given that most ads for leading brands are run in national media, ads for new and/or low-awareness brands could be shifted to spot television to avoid competitive clutter (Ephron, 1994; Jones, 1992). Because a premium is charged for short units in spot TV (i.e., 15s cost about two-thirds, not half, of the 30-second rate), spot campaigns may be more effective with :30s; the longer units should allow greater creative flexibility to introduce brands. Use of spot day-parts that are cost-competitive with network ads on a CPM-homes-reached basis, including prime access and late evening, should improve the efficiency of campaigns (c.f., Ephron, 1994).

The choice of markets for spot advertising by low-awareness brands is crucial. Marketers often "determine their ad budgets on a national basis" and then use spot commercials to "divert some of the budget to 'heavy up their ad spending in markets where their brands are not doing well" (Schroer, 1990). Thus, spot ads are frequently targeted to the promoted brands' weak markets, where they may produce relatively small sales effects (Jones, 1992; Raj, 1982). Rather than targeting weak markets, spot commercials should be targeted to markets with high or increasing brand development indices (for new products, category-development indices or brand-development indices for the marketer's other products could be used). Specific programs within these markets should then be selected with the demographic(s) that best predict brand purchase (e.g., sex). The rationale for use of spot TV with this targeting is straightforward. Advertising is more likely to attract and influence users of the brand (Jones, 1992; Raj, 1982; Te llis, 1988), and for many brands, use differs more by market than by any demographic variable other than sex (Ephron, 1992b).

Brand-development differences between markets may result from the pricing and displays of key retailers, regional preferences for product types and brands, prior marketing efforts, and synergies between these and other factors. When brand development differs substantially, the most promising markets deserve more than the relatively equal emphasis provided by national advertising, and underdeveloped markets may deserve less (Abraham and Lodish, 1990; Nielsen Marketing Research, 1993; Schroer, 1990). Therefore, brands that can't afford to advertise at competitive levels in national media should shift advertising dollars to the most promising markets; this practice should reduce competitive clutter effects and efficiently target users (Ephron, 1994; Kent and Allen, 1994).

Increasing Effectiveness in the Current Ad Environment. The cluttered and competitive nature of 1990s television advertising has been produced by factors that individual advertisers cannot control (McDonald, 1990). These include audience fragmentation, high demand for advertising, deregulation of broadcasting, network pricing policies, entrenched targeting practices, and brand proliferation. Although advertisers cannot reverse these trends, they have important opportunities to refine their targeting, creative, planning, and research practices to increase effectiveness in competitive media.

ROBERT J KENT is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Delaware. His research focuses on comepetitive ad in reference brand familiarity and the measurement of ad effectiveness. His work has previously appeared in the JOurnal of Advertising Research, the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Advertising, the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Marketing Letters and Advances in Consumer Research.


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Table 1 Competitive Clutter in Network Television
                                Percent with in-hour
Network     Number of ads hour    competitor ad(s)
   ABC            30.86                18.73
   CBS            32.02                16.12
   NBC            32.16                29.12
Prime time
   ABC            21.76                28.34
   CBS            23.42                23.24
   NBC            22.23                35.11
            Specific high-clutter
Network         categories
   ABC      long distance
   CBS      detergents
   NBC      cars, long distance
Prime time
   ABC      cars
   CBS      fast food
   NBC      movies, cars
Source: Author's analysis of Competitive Media Reporting
MediaWatch Data

Table 2

Which One Serves It Hot?

The following examples of competitive clutter occurred during the week of June 20, 1993.

* Five Fast-Food Ads during an Hour-Long Network Program

* McDonald's

* Taco Bell

* Burger King

* Little Ceasars

* Dominos

* Three Ads for Residential Long-Distance during a Hale-Hour Network Program

* Saint

* AT&T

Table 3 General Product Categories with High Competitive Clutter
                    Percentage o'
General category    all ads logged
Automotive              12.21
Ready-to-eat foods       9.26
Retail                   8.61
Entertainment            7 31
Drugs                    7.26
Toiletries               6.81
Restaurants              6.77
Household products       5.98
Beer and wine            4.23
Soft drinks              4.12

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