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  • Writer's picturePeter Hammer

Understanding Avoidance Behaviour

Much of our work is grounded in academic theory.  The following text is taken from my Masters thesis Exploring the impact of clutter on advertising effectiveness across broadcast media which I completed at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia.

This post explores advertising avoidance, which is key to effectiveness.  You can find other extracts from this document on Key Measures of Advertising Effectiveness and Factors Contributing to Advertising Effectiveness.

Avoidance Behaviour and Advertising Effectiveness

Consumers must be exposed to advertisements in order for them to have any chance of being effective.  Some authors have claimed that clutter might induce advertising avoidance (e.g. Speck and Elliott 1998).  As such, a consumer’s propensity to consume or avoid advertisements might then be a useful measure of effectiveness. 

In a review of the literature addressing television viewing behaviour, Paech, Riebe and Sharp (2003) identified two forms of avoidance behaviour: active avoidance and passive avoidance.  Active avoidance relates to behaviour where respondents have no chance of being exposed to the advertising (i.e. switching to another channel or leaving the room), whereas passive avoidance relates to behaviour that gives limited attention to the advertisement, but may result in some exposure (i.e. talking, reading, performing chores whilst in front of the television).  

Active Avoidance 

Paech, Riebe and Sharp (2003) identified, based on a review of literature in the area, that roughly one third of all commercial viewing behaviour is made up of active avoidance.  Similarly, Abernathy (1990) aggregated the results from several studies and concluded that roughly one third (32%) of all advertising audiences were actively avoiding commercials - 22% were said to have left the room and roughly 10% were engaged in channel switching.   

Researchers have been known to use a range recording devices in-home to capture viewing behaviour.  Findings made in some early studies suggested that more than 40% of all TV viewers left the room during the commercial breaks (Allen 1965; Anderson 1985).  Ehrenberg and Twyman (1966) used Tamlogs and Tammeters  to determine that 20% of the viewing audience were momentarily absent from the viewing room.  In a later study conducted in the Netherlands, Van Meurs (1998) observed five TV networks over a four-month period and concluded that approximately 30% of their audiences either left the room or switched channels.  Similarly, a study of the final ‘Seinfeld’ episode reported by Lynch (1999) found that approximately 30% of all commercial viewing behaviour was active avoidance – 16% were reported to have left the room; 14% were said to have switched to other channels.  Danaher (1995) reported that changes in people meter ratings during commercial breaks were relatively minor, deriving that 10% of viewing behaviour during commercials was comprised of channel switching.  It is likely that the variations that occurred in these studies is likely due to disparity in the methodologies applied to collect the findings. 

Avoidance behaviour has been researched sparingly in other media.  Radio avoidance behaviour is thought to be largely comprised of switching, and researchers have observed that more switching occurred in cars than in the home (Heeter and Greenberg 1985).  This may be partially due to the prevalence of in-car radios having the ability to pre-program stations, and may be worsened by the widespread adoption of station-scanning buttons being conveniently mounted on the steering wheel in more recent automobiles.  Abernathy (1991) also reported on car listening behaviour using tape recorders, which showed that roughly 60% of all advertisements were either partially or entirely avoided.  Other radio switching data was collected using the ‘RadioControl Watch’ in the UK, which revealed that the average listener was observed to switch 5.2 times per day (i.e. switching the radio off or over to another station).  This, however, was about half as much as the switching that was found to occur with the average TV viewer who was observed switch to off or change channels 9.8 times per day (North and van Muers 2004).  

Passive Avoidance Behaviour 

Most research studies addressing media consumption behaviour have shown that a substantive proportion of audiences conduct a range of competing activities during advertisement breaks such as reading, talking or household chores (including Ehrenberg and Twyman 1966; Lynch 1999; Ritson 2003).   

In an early study using in-home observations of television viewers, Steiner (1966) suggested that approximately 37% of program viewers paid only partial attention to the ads.  Ehrenberg and Twyman (1966) reported that 30% of ad audiences were ‘viewing and active’ – i.e. participating in other activities such as talking, reading and knitting.  Lynch (1999) used self-reported viewing behaviour and determined that up to 20% of the audience turned their attention away from the screen during the advertisement breaks to talk with others in the room.  

A number of studies have suggested that viewers who may not be ‘actively watching’ the commercial may still be paying some attention to the advertising (Krugman, Cameron et al. 1995; McDonald 1996; Krugman 2000).  There are now a growing number of writers who champion the Low Attention Processing (LAP) model, which supports that advertising can have an effect when consumers are paying low amounts of attention to it (Heath 2001; Howard-Spink 2005; Penn 2005).

Further Reading : 

Abernathy, A. M. (1990). "Television Exposure: Programs vs. Advertising." Current Issues and Research in Advertising 13: 61-78. 

Abernathy, A. M. (1991). "Differences Between Advertising and Program Exposure for Car Radio Listening." Journal of Advertising Research 31(2): 33-42. 

Allen, C. L. (1965). "Photographing the TV Audience." Journal of Advertising Research 5(1): 2-8. 

Anderson, D. R. (1985). Online Cognitive Processing of Television. Psychological Processes and Advertising Effects. L. F. Alwitt and A. A. Mitchell. London, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 177199. 

Danaher, P. J. (1995). "What happens to television ratings during commercial breaks?" Journal of Advertising Research 35(1). 

Ehrenberg, A. S. C. and W. A. Twyman (1966). "On Measuring Television Audiences." Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 130(Series A): 1-59. 

Heath, R. (2001). The hidden power of advertising : how low involvement processing influences the way we choose brands. Henley-on-Thames, Admap. 

Heeter, C. and B. S. Greenberg (1985). "Profiling the Zappers." Journal of Advertising Research 25(2): 15-19. 

Howard-Spink, J. (2005). "Does invisible mean ineffective?" Admap 467: 41-43. 

Krugman, D. M., G. T. Cameron, et al. (1995). "Visual Attention to Programming and Commercials: The Use of In-Home Observations." Journal of Advertising 24(1): 1-12. 

Krugman, H. E. (2000). "Memory without recall, exposure without perception." Journal of Advertising Research 40(6): 49-54. 

Lynch, K. (1999). "The Influence of Viewing Quality on Ad Effectiveness." Admap March. 

McDonald, C. (1996). Advertising Reach and Frequency: Maximising Advertising Results Through Effective Frequency. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Association of National Advertisers in conjunction with NTC Business Books. 

North, N. and L. van Muers (2004). Radio zapping. ESOMAR Radio Conference, Geneva, ESOMAR. 

Paech, S., E. Riebe, et al. (2003). What Do People Do In Advertisement Breaks? ANZMAC. Adelaide: 155 - 162. 

Penn, D. (2005). Brain science, that's interesting, but what do I do about it? Market Research Society Annual Conference, 2005. 

Ritson, M. (2003). New Study Challenges Assumed Level of TV Advertisement Viewing, London Business School. 

Speck, P. and M. Elliott (1998). "Consumer Perceptions of Advertising Clutter and its Impact Across Various Media." Journal of Advertising Research. 

Steiner, G. (1966). "The People Look at Commercials: A Study of Audience Behaviour." Journal of Business 39(Spring): 272-304. 

van Meurs, L. (1998). "Zapp! A study of switching behavior during commercial breaks." Journal of Advertising Research 38(1): 43-53. 



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