News & Events

Marketing Researcher Examines How We Remember What We Don't Remember

Rob RouwenhorstJust because you zip through the commercials while watching your favorite TV shows on your DVR doesn't mean the sales pitches aren't getting through.

"It's clear from research that many times, when you fast-forward through the ads, they frequently influence the viewer," said Rob Rouwenhorst, a lecturer of marketing in The University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business who studies the psychology of advertising.

The title of Rouwenhorst's recently completed doctoral thesis is "Do Zipped Commercials Influence You?" and that also turns out to be a multibillion dollar question in the entertainment industry. More than 36 million Americans own DVR devices of some kind—TiVo is the most well known—and numerous studies show that more than half of them fast-forward through the commercials.

Since advertisers can no longer be sure how many viewers are paying attention to their commercials, they will either pay less for them or look for other advertising methods altogether. As a result, Rouwenhorst said billions of dollars in advertising revenue are at stake for broadcasters.

He said his interest in zipped commercials started when he became enraptured with his first TiVo, which he bought in 2001 as an MBA student.

"I watched more TV than I should when I was studying for my MBA, and then had to quit watching entirely when I started studying for my Ph.D.," he said. But one question that came to mind as he zipped through commercials, and then lingered even after he'd given up television, was whether those commercials made any impact on his behavior even though he had no conscious memory of them.

He made that the central question of his research and discovered that, yes, they probably had. He said researchers have looked at how well consumers remember ads that are zipped at speeds of 300, 1,800 and 6,000 percent real-time. They've found that at 300 percent, viewers can recall an ad even better than one they've seen at normal speed. While this may seem counterintuitive, Rouwenhorst said it's possible because the viewer using a DVR is actually paying more attention to the screen as she's zipping through ads so she can stop right at the start of the program's next segment.

For that reason, Rouwenhorst said, companies engaged in online advertising may be better served by allowing consumers to fast-forward through videos but regulate their speed.

"Viewers often just open up a new window and continuing browsing until the advertisement they are 'forced' to watch ends," he said. "It may be more advantageous to give customers a sense of control and let them fast-forward, but at a slow speed. Not only would they be more likely to recall the advertising, but they may actually feel more positively toward the brand that did not force them to sit through an advertisement."

As the zip rate increases, Rouwenhorst said recall is hindered because the ads go by so fast that viewers can't process them, and they often don't register at all. But Rouwenhorst said that while these ads don't register consciously, they could still influence future behavior because they leave an unconscious—or implicit—memory.

He notes one study in which researchers showed viewers a program that featured a commercial for Subway sandwiches that was sped up by 60 times, to a half-second. A second group was shown the same program but with no commercial. Later, when asked if they preferred a Subway or Quizno's sandwich, the group that saw the commercial chose Subway's at a higher rate than the group that didn't. Although the subjects didn't consciously remember seeing the commercial, the majority of them said they preferred Subway.

While the margin is usually small—only about a 10 percent bump in preference for Subway by viewers of zipped commercials over those who watched the program that did not have a Subway ad—the bump remained consistent over several studies for many different brands and commercials. And in some businesses, even a small increase in name recognition over a competitor can lead to millions of dollars in sales.

Although research hasn't shown why some ads that barely register in a person's brain are nevertheless altering our choices, Rouwenhorst said that giant logos and bright colors seem to be more likely to be perceived.

"While we have shown that commercials we do not recall can still influence our choices, it will take some time to see what elements of the commercial have the largest impact on our subsequent choices," he said.


Return to top of page