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Excessive ad frequency is turning off consumers

A WARC report shows that too many ads impact how consumers view a brand – even more than when they appear next to unsafe content. Media planners weigh on how to address the issue.

By Patti Summerfield
Jun 4, 2021


Thanks to market fragmentation, measurement gaps, and walled gardens; having a clear view of ad frequency is a complex challenge. None of which is less annoying for consumers.

Excessive ad frequency is more likely to have a negative impact on how consumers view a brand than if those ads were placed around unsafe content, according to recent research from WARC and GWI, Global Ad Trends: COVID-19 One Year On, April 2021. In fact, 53% of those surveyed said "too many ads" are the most damaging factor for brands, while 37% and 31% said the same about ads that are "not relevant" or that appear "next to inappropriate content," respectively.

Although the findings are based on a survey of U.K. and U.S. internet users aged 16 to 64, the consumer attitudes towards too many and too intrusive ads are universal.

"Brand safety concerns often focus on adjacency to inappropriate content, but it is an excessive number of ads that is most damaging for brands," stated Warc in its analysis. "This can be difficult for marketers to manage, though, as the growing number of channels used by consumers has made cross-media measurement more important but far from straightforward."

Ben Roth, group director, marketing science at Touche, says that as the digital eco-system becomes more siloed, advertisers are unfortunately moving towards an activation per platform approach. They're increasingly managing and measuring frequency on Facebook separately from YouTube, for example, without acknowledging the massive duplication of audience between these channels – and this is exacerbated by ad placement, creative, and targeting that is not well thought out.

The importance of this issue is highlighted in industry framework created by the World Federation of Advertisers – Establishing principles for a new approach to Cross-Media Measurement – that states "there are considerable amounts of impressions bought which are driving diminishing or even negative value to advertisers. There is scope to prevent the wastage of billions of dollars through better measurement which, in turn, improves ROI." It goes on to say that avoiding excessive ad frequencies will, of course, deliver an improved consumer experience.

This summer in Canada, the Cross Media Measurement Committee that was created by the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) last fall will commence the creation of a Canadian blueprint to set guidelines for cross-media measurement based on the learnings from the WFA, ISBA, and ANA initiatives, adapting it for the Canadian media ecosystem.

The belief is that having separate media measurement systems do not provide an understanding of the true reach of a campaign and therefore does not help to eliminate excessive frequency. Improved measurement is also said to help the sell-side better value their inventory to attract advertising.

A pilot project is expected to be announced in late 2022. To underscore the importance of this initiative the ACA is recruiting a dedicated full-time employee to provide day-to-day leadership of the Canadian initiative.

Erica Kokiw, VP digital at UM says that "there are many approaches clients can take to ensure optimal frequency, including maximizing SOV and reducing audience duplication between platforms." And Roth concurs, stating that "looking at frequency in a new and different way can help to understand and assess the impacts better."

"For example, we may reach a person 15 times throughout a media campaign," says Roth. "A frequency of 15 may seem like a lot when assessing at face value, but if they received different messages and formats and offers as they evolve through the customer journey – that is much more likely to be less of an annoyance. We have the ability to measure on the user/ID level and by message/offer, so we should be thinking about frequency in that lens as well."

Nileen Ventura, VP, channel insights and discovery, Horizon Media, believes brands should focus on the consumer journey by measuring the "verified human view" versus the "opportunity to see" – reaching the right targets should eliminate unnecessary ad placements, she says.

"This requires technology – such as eye tracking – at scale," adds Ventura. "The industry's future will be based on being able to trade based on "attention." Attention is also affected by context. Placements of ads in highly relevant content where users are deeply engaged and presented with highly relevant ad message, will all contribute to a win-win situation."

Ventura says advertisers should also move from measuring "viewability" to "visibility," which considers exposure time and visual impact of both media placement and creative.

"Along with these hard metrics, creative assessment or testing will need to move to a higher order to consider emotional response. This is where neuroscience can come in," says Ventura. "Just as in traditional survey research when respondents are asked what they think of and feel towards an ad, neuroscience measures movements in the brain. This allows us to shift from 'claimed behaviour' to actual observed behavior. Together, strong emotional response and ad visibility, will drive more impact and elicit attention. Repetition does not always guarantee a positive response."