From Medium to Mild: Tracking Australian Consumers’ Indifference Towards Television Advertising

ABSTRACT - Most studies of consumers’ attitudes towards advertising tend to be cross-sectional and/or North American. This study provides a quasi-longitudinal Australian perspective. Results from two surveys, conducted in 1996 and 1999, are reported. Findings indicate that certain attitudes have indeed deteriorated and consumer apathy and indifference towards advertising remains disturbingly high. In sum, the findings provide little cause for Australian advertisers to be optimistic as they head into the third millennium. Limitations are discussed and directions for future research offered.


Mike Ewing (2001) ,"From Medium to Mild: Tracking Australian Consumers’ Indifference Towards Television Advertising", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 53-59.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 53-59


Mike Ewing, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia


Most studies of consumers’ attitudes towards advertising tend to be cross-sectional and/or North American. This study provides a quasi-longitudinal Australian perspective. Results from two surveys, conducted in 1996 and 1999, are reported. Findings indicate that certain attitudes have indeed deteriorated and consumer apathy and indifference towards advertising remains disturbingly high. In sum, the findings provide little cause for Australian advertisers to be optimistic as they head into the third millennium. Limitations are discussed and directions for future research offered.


Given the sheer magnitude of the advertising industry and the extent of its impact on the market, it not only useful but necessary to gauge consumers’ reactions to the commercial stimuli that confront them on a day-to-day basis. Over the past forty years numerous studies to this effect have been undertaken by academics, the media, commercial marketing researchers and advertising agencies themselves. In the post war period, consumers were generally appreciative recipients of markeing messages. The economic boom made Americans in particular eager to glean the necessary information to guide their rampant purchasing behaviour. However, as the economy slowed, the novelty of advertising wore off and Generation X’ers became more entrenched, the tide of popular opinion has steadily swung against advertisers. Growing consumer cynicism towards patronising commercials and repetitive media barrages have resulted in such evasive practices as 'channel surfing’ and VCR 'zipping’ as forms of avoidance behaviour. Networks responded to channel surfing by synchronising their ad breaks. Consumers countered by leaving the room or reading the newspaper during a commercial break. Astute commentators such as Jones (1992) have cautioned against intense media bursts, advocating more subtle continuity schedules. Jones also suggests that for advertising to be effective, it must be relevant, entertaining and say something meaningful about the brand. For the most part, this advice has fallen on deaf ears. Commercial networks in Australia 'boast’ among the highest advertisement-to-program ratios in the world. Furthermore, low financial barriers to entry have resulted in excessive poor quality local retail-oriented campaigns which do little to help the advertising industry’s cause and may even have a negative spill-over or halo effect on national brand-building campaigns. Given the absolute size of the local advertising industry, the country’s sparse population and its relatively low media costs, Australia is indeed somewhat idiosyncratic. For these and other reasons, a study of Australians’ attitudes towards advertising is particularly worthwhile. Findings from a quasi-longitudinal investigation of local attitudes towards advertising in 1996 and 1999 are reported.


Consumers’ attitudes towards advertising have been studied since the early 1950s. In developed markets, viewer disposition and time appear to be inversely related. In other words, the longer the market has been exposed to advertising, the less positive consumers are to the medium. Du Plessis (1994) confirms this in South Africa, where likability has been steadily declining for the past ten years. Similarly, in the U.S. consumers were positive towards advertising in the 1950s but these sentiments have deteriorated considerably in the 80s and 90s (Aaker and Bruzzone, 1985; Alwitt and Prabhaker, 1992; Mittal, 1994). Attitudes toward TV advertising are affected by such factors as beliefs about the advertising content, perceptions regarding the function of TV advertising, viewer demographics and attitudes towards TV programs (Alwitt and Prabhaker, 1992). This view of attitudes toward advertising being multi-dimensional is also supported by Muehling (1987) and Durand and Lambert (1985), who add that the feeling of powerlessness on the part of the consumer in regards to his/her rights may affect the attitude towards the advertising. In fact, the authors stress that those consumers who feel alienated are more likely to criticise advertising.

Alwitt and Prabhaker (1994), Biel and Bridgwater (1990) and Aaker and Stayman (1990) argue that for an advertisement to be effective and less annoying it has to be meaningful and relevant to the viewer and it must not be shown frequently or be offensive. According to Barnes and Dotson (1990), the viewer may perceive the commercial as being offensive if the execution or the product itself is perceived as such. It has also been established that the more respondents perceive that TV advertising has benefits and that it is well executed, the more they like it (Alwitt and Prabhaker, 1992). However, according to Muehling (1987) and Shavitt, Lowrey and Haefner (1998) although consumers generally believe that advertising is essential they tend to question its economic benefits. Moreover, Pollay and Mittal (1993) found that the prevailing view among respondents is that advertising promotes materialism, value corruption and fasity. Mittal’s (1994) study, on which this research is based, concluded that approximately 50% of U.S. respondents dislike advertising and 43% believe that no more than 10% of all TV advertising is informative and useful. According to Chen and Allmon (1998), TV and newspapers are perceived to be more informative and TV also more entertaining in both USA and Australia. However, TV in Australia was ranked as the second most irritating medium behind direct mail. Widespread VCR ownership has made it easier for respondents to avoid advertisements. The most commonly used avoidance technique is 'zipping’ (Lee and Lumpkin, 1992). This represents a worrying trend for advertisers, because 9 out of 10 commercials zipped are zipped in an avoidance mode, which suggests that "it is not the content of the commercial that causes it to be zipped but its very presence" (Cronin and Menelly, 1992: 6).


In terms of advertising expenditure as a percentage of Gross National Product, Australia ranks second behind the U.S. (1.19% vs 1.29% of GNP). In 1997, total advertising expenditure in Australia grew by 10.3%, reaching AUD$6.5 billion. On a media to media basis, newspaper expenditure accounted for 41.8% of the total advertising expenditure, followed by TV at 34.2%. Radio accounted for a modest 8%Bthe medium’s lowest share since 1992. Despite the relative size of the Australian advertising industry, the general public are not favourably disposed towards advertising. According to a Grey Advertising study, Eye on Australia, almost eight out of ten Australians believe that advertising bombards them with useless information, two-thirds think it as out of touch with economic reality and three-quarters feel that its boring and repetitious. Sixty percent feel that advertising insults their intelligence and more than eighty percent claim it offers an unrealistic depiction of Australians’ homes and home life (Shoebridge, 1996). The Grey study was recently repeated and reports a slight deterioration 'across the board’, so to speak. Lloyd (1999) concludes that for advertisers, the latest Eye on Australia study present much the same negative snapshot as in previous years. 73% of respondents polled felt that advertising bombards them with useless information, 61% (up from 59% in 1998) said that advertising insults their intelligence and 72% said that they were taking less notice of advertising.




Where most published research in this domain is essentially of a cross-sectional nature, this study provides a quasi-longitudinal perspective by tracking attitudes over time. To this end, the research design employed in 1996 was repeated in 1999. While pure longitudinality was not achieved (i.e. exactly the same respondents), exactly the same sampling frame was used in both surveys. In effect, Mittal’s (1994) study of North American consumers attitudes towards advertising was replicated twice. The objectives of the research focused on establishing: (1) how essential Australians deem TV advertising to be, (2) how important TV advertising is to the consumer at the individual level, (3) consumers liking of TV advertising, (4) how consumers cope with TV advertising exposure, (5) consumer perceptions of the uses and consequences of TV advertising in terms of its impact on them personally and society as a whole, and (6) whether there been any changes in consumer perceptions since 1996.


The data for the survey were collected via two independent mail surveys. The sample was confined to the Perth metropolitan aea in order to avoid any biases which may have emerged as a result of differences among regional TV stations. The White Pages telephone directory was used as a sampling frame. A systematic, quasi-random sampling procedure was employed. The most commonly used method of systematic random sampling is to select every nth number required in the eventual sample (Crouch and Housden, 1996). To achieve this, the number of pages in the phone book was divided by the number of questionnaires posted (500). The page interval was calculated by dividing the two numbers. The first name at the top of the page became a member of the sample. However, if the first name at the top of the page was a business name, it was excluded and the 3rd name down the column was chosen. The data were collected during a two two-week periods in April 1996 and March 1999. In the 1996 survey, 165 replies obtained, of which 149 could be used, representing an effective response rate of 31.6%. In 1999, this improved to an impressive 47.8% (239 useable questionnaires). Sample demographics are reported in Table 1.

Cross-tabulations, frequency distributions and descriptive statistics were used to analyse the data. An independent samples t-test was used to test for equality of means between 1996 and 1999 data. There is a possibility of a sample bias due to the fact that in 1996 there was a slight over-representation of males, while in 1999 females were over-represented. In addition, those below 30 years of age were considerably under-represented in both samples.


In comparing the results obtained from the two surveys (1996 and 1999), it is evident that there has been a notable increase in respondent indifference towards advertising. There has been an increase from 26% in 1996 to 34.3% in 1999 in those who acknowledge that TV advertising is only somewhat essential and an increase from 6.2% to 13.1% in those who consider TV advertising to be not essential at all. In addition, in 1999 more people (31.4%) consider TV advertising to be neither good nor bad compared to 19.6% in 1996. There has also been a significant increase in those who neither like nor dislike TV advertisementsB12.9% in 1996 versus 22.3% in 1999. See Table 2 for more detail.

Perceptions about the attributes of TV advertising.

Overall, 66.4% of respondents believe that no more than 30% of all TV ads are informative and helpful (see Table 3). 84.2% believe that up to 60% of TV advertisements can be deceptive and misleading. 60.3 % consider less than 30% of TV ads as being entertaining and enjoyable. Also, there is a uniform belief among the respondents that TV advertising insults an average consumer’s intelligence. 13.6% in 1996 and 24% in 1999 thought that less than 15% of TV advertisements are informative and helpful. Honesty is present in up to 15% of TV ads according to 17% of respondents in 1996 and 20.7% in 1999. TV ads do not score high on entertainment value. For instance, 15.6% in 1996 and 18.3% in 1999 believed that less than 15% of TV ads are enjoyable. Up to 90% of TV advertisements were considered boring by 6.8% in 1996 and 13.7% in 1999. More people also perceive TV ads as being offensive, 29.4% in 1999 compared to 19.1% in 1996. In addition, a large portion of consumers (12% in 1999 vs 3.7% in 1996) are convinced that up to 45% of TV ads make too much fuss about trivial brand differences.



Behavioral response to commercial breaks

Overall, an alarming 73% of respondents indicated that they always fast-forward if it is a video recording (see Table 4). Furthermore, 40.4% often and 31.1% sometimes leave the room during the commercial break and 39.6% often flip channels. Finally, 43.7% occasionally and 26.4% never keep watching like it was the program. Again, the trend is negative. Only 28.3% of respondnts in 1996 compared to 44.7% in 1999 always fast-forwarded ads during a video recording. More people (24.2%) also tended to flip channels more often in 1999 than in 1996, when this behaviour was prevalent among 15.4% of respondents. Rather than watch a TV commercial, 14.5% in 1996 and 25.9% of respondents in 1999 opted for leaving the room or attending to chores (15.2% in 1996 vs 19.6% in 1999).

Perceptions about the Uses and Consequences of TV advertising

To capture and track respondents’ views on the uses and consequences of TV advertising, 36 statements arranged under 12 broad categories were employed. These measures were sourced from Mittal’s (1994) study. Respondents were asked to rate on the scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) they feelings toward these statements. Appendix A summarises the results. The overall findings reveal that there has not been a significant change in the Australian public’s attitudes toward TV advertising since 1996. Both in 1996 and 1999, respondents were predominantly concerned with the impact TV advertising exerts on children as well as prices and social values of society as a whole. However, it was found that the population surveyed in 1999 was significantly less concerned about the possibility of advertising creating a materialistic society. In addition, the respondents in 1999 were significantly less confident with the statement that consumers would be better off without TV advertising than the respondents in 1996. Respondents generally believed that TV advertising provides some information about the product availability in the marketplace (mean=4.29). However, this information is not sufficient enough to provide an understanding about the distinct features of the brand (mean=3.35). Only a small portion of respondents believe that TV advertising provides sufficient information related to fashion trends (mean=2.57). TV advertising seems to lack an ability to create confidence in the advertised brands. In fact, a majority of respondents disagreed with the statement that it will make it difficult for them to make a purchase decisions if there was no TV advertising (mean=2.49). This finding could be explained by the fact that consumers perceive TV as being lean on relevant and meaningful information. This may also indicate that a significant majority of respondents may have other ways to access the information that help them to make a purchase decision.

TV advertising also scored low on entertainment value. As expected, TV advertisements induce a feeling of happiness only in small proportion of respondents (mean=3.51). The most intense feelings emerge among respondents when asked about the impact of TV advertising on societal values and children. In general, consumers believe that advertising creates a materialistic society (mean=5.25) and that it encourages people to buy expensive products to show off (mean=4.66). However, in comparing data from the 1996 and 1999 surveys, it appears that this negative feeling among consumers has diminished slightly. Basically, consumers consider TV advertising to be irrelevant to them in terms of values portrayed. For instance, consumers generally could not relate to the values and beliefs portrayed in TVA (mean=2.35).

Consumers held strong beliefs in terms of the negative effects of TV advertising on children, generally agreeing that TVA encourages children to make unreasonable demands on their parents (mean=5.99) and takes advantage of children (mean=5.88). Not surprisingly, the notion of banning TVA on children’s programs met with strong support (mean=5.48). Similarly, there was little agreement that TVA educates children about the products that are good for them (mean=2.48). However, what irritates most of all is the mere presence of repetitious advertisements. In fact, this is so much so that a significant number of people (mean=5.93) would be happy if the laws limiting repetition would be put in place.

Interestingly enough, despite the concerns about the effects of TV advertising, the findings of this survey seem to support those of Mittal (1994), which sem to indicate that people are becoming indifferent (sensitised?) to TV advertising. Moreover, some actually look forward to the advertising break, because it gives them an opportunity to attend to other chores without actually interrupting the program consumers (mean=4.06). People also exhibit considerable scepticism about the economic benefits of advertising. There was general agreement (mean=5.42) that TVA increases the cost of products and that if advertising was eliminated, consumers would be better off (mean=4.31). However in comparison to the 1996 survey, the respondents in 1999 exhibited significantly less confidence in the latter statement. In fact, many (mean=4.87) believe that advertising is needed to support TV programming. Another interesting finding is that in general, respondents believe that advertising makes people buy products they do not need (mean=4.13) at the same time indicating that they personally have never been persuaded by TV advertising to buy a product (mean=4.47). This finding could be partly explained by unwillingness on the part of some consumers to admit otherwise. Overall, it appears that there have not been little substantive differences in consumer attitudes toward TV advertising between 1996 and 1999.


The results of this survey support Mittal’s (1994) finding that consumers are becoming more indifferent toward TV advertising. This could, firstly, be attributed to the fact that people record TV programs, which give them an opportunity to fast-forward the recorded content. In fact, the results of this survey show that there is a significant increase in this type of 'zipping’ behaviour. Secondly, consumers have found another use for commercial breaksBthat is to engage in other activities like making a cup of coffee, which can then be enjoyed during the actual program. Thirdly, this indifference could be explained by the apathy on the part of average consumer induced by the inability to change a situation. For instance, consumers may believe that they will be better off without TV advertising, but at the same time they recognise that in general TV advertising is somewhat essential particularly as a support mechanism for TV programs. Indifference and dislike toward TV advertising may arise due to the simple fact that consumers find TV advertisements to be contrary to their own values and needs. In short, advertising makes claims that are superficial, thus making consumers wonder why they need advertising if it does not make their purchasing decisions easier. The research findings indicate that TV advertisements create awareness about the products entering the marketplace, but they lack sufficient information on the attributes that are important to a consumer, for example, price and product features.

A topic consumers’ feel particularly strongly about is advertising in children’s programs. In fact, many would like to see a ban on advertising during children’s programs. The reason being that TV advertising takes advantage of children who are not mature enough to make decisions for themselves by advertising products that have a questionable benefits. As Pollay and Mittal (1993) found out, consumers believe that TV advertising corrupts values and creates a more materialistic society. Although consumers consider advertising across all mediums to be lacking information and insulting to their intelligence, they feel somewhat more positive toward newspaper advertising, because of the medium’s information content.

Finally, these findings suggest that despite all the research conducted in the field, advertisers still produce advertisements that in the majority of cases miss the mark. For an ad to be effective it has to produce sales, but this is impossible if values and expectations of consumers clash with those of advertisers. Therefore, advertisers have to create advertisements that are informative on those attributes that are important to the delineated target markets. Next, the publi should be educated about the effects of advertising on prices and living standards. In short, consumers should be persuaded that TV advertising is beneficial to them, because the more consumers " perceive that TV advertising has benefits and that it is well executed, the more they like it" (Alwitt and Prabhaker, 1992: 38). Furthermore, to make the messages more meaningful and less offensive, the emphasis should be put on market research in order to achieve the best possible match between a particular target market segment value system and on advertisement. As consumers dislike repetition of the same advertisement during a commercial break, advertisers can opt for different execution styles. Advertisers have to recognise that dislike toward advertising institution in general means a dislike toward a particular brand advertisement. In a recent HBR article, Jones (2000) places much of the blame for advertising’s indifferent performance on company management. He notes that in many organizations, advertising has fallen off top management’s plate, so to speak. Advertising decisions are increasingly being delegated to low-level marketing functionaries who are more concerned with selling proposals up the chain of command than with taking risks or achieving excellence. He concludes that the process of developing ads is more focused on working the bureaucracy than on promoting creativity.




Apart from some of the standard limitations associated with mail surveys (such as method bias), both samples were over-represented by older respondents, which might influence the ratings in terms of value compatibility and the level of entertainment present in TV advertisements. Another limitation is that the study was confined to Western Australia. Future researchers may consider undertaking a study with a larger sample, to achieve a higher representation of various age groups. In addition, data gathering method could involve phone or face to face interviews to reduce the number of unanswered questions. Future research could focus on identifying ways for Australian advertisers to increase the effectiveness of their communications. Perhaps some form of self-regulatory standards could be imposed. This could take the form of a mandatory pre-test which a commercial has to 'pass’ before being flighted. Curbs to reduce frequency could also be investigated.






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Mike Ewing, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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