In the final hours of the 2012 Presidential Campaign, both candidates executed a record-breaking eleventh-hour ad blitz -- more money was spent on more political ads than ever before. Voters in crucial swing states (Ohio) experienced an avalanche of political ads – an average of 333 ads per day were aired in Columbus, alone. But, were these ads actually watched? 

Forty years ago, if you wanted to avoid watching a commercial, you had to get up off the couch walk across the room and turn the dial. Today, many viewers have complete control of their media environment. Disinterested viewers can simply avoid commercials altogether by changing the channel, pressing the mute button, turning the television off, or fast-forwarding.

Knowing exactly who turns off ads, especially as the incidence rate of time-shifted viewing increases, is paramount to determining the size of advertising effects. After all, if a campaign pays to reach 1,000 viewers and only 200 actually watch the ad – and only about half of those recall anything about it – the real effect of the political ad is significantly diminished.

Given that we know little about how people behave when confronted with political ads, Simon Jackman, Jeff Lewis, Lynn Vavreck and I investigate ad-viewing behavior. We leverage individual level media exposure data, providing second-by-second records of viewers’ television and advertising exposure. Panelists were provided smartphones equipped with audio recognition software that digitally captured all of their television exposure over the course of the 2006 midterm campaign. These data enable an analysis of not only who watches political advertisements, but also what types of people “turn-off” ads and what types of ads are avoided.

To measure ad avoidance we analyze the programs an individual watched (during a time when a political ad was run) to see whether the individual actually watched the political ad during a commercial break. Specifically, we define an “ad avoid” as: watching the 5 seconds prior to the start of an ad (the “lead-in spot”) and subsequently not watching the political advertisement in full. We find that viewers avoid a little less than half of the political ads they encounter.

When it comes to avoiding ads is there anything unique about political ads? After all, if viewers simply skip all ads at similar rates, drawing inferences about political behavior is complicated. The Figure above plots number of ads watched as a function of number of ads avoided (muted, fast-forwarded, channel changed) by ad type. Regression lines closer to the y axis indicate more ads avoided than watched, while regression lines closer to the x axis represent more ads watched than avoided. The 45 degree line indicates equal amounts of ads watched and avoided.

The takeaway: individuals are filtering the content they see during commercial breaks. The panelists in our study avoid 66% of the Geico Insurance commercials they encounter...(so, could switching to Geico really save you 15% or more on...NEXT!) In contrast, viewers avoid only 17% of the Apple commercials they encounter. Political advertisements fall in the middle – viewers avoid approximately 42% of the political ads they encounter.

What kinds of people avoid political ads? Figure below indicates that high and low engagement citizens rarely avoid political ads. (Access to technology plays an important role here. Viewers ability to skip an ad is correlated with political engagement – in 2006, 67% of the highly engaged panelists had TIVO or DVR equipment, while only 28% of the least engaged do.)



Rather, it is those viewers who are moderately politically engaged who avoid more than half of the ads they come into contact with. Since the low engagement voters probably were least likely to vote and the high engagement voters made up their minds long before yesterday, the group they most needed to sway was also the on theat as most likley to censor them. 



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