Most irritating things in media: ‘Interruption’. No. 4 in an occasional series

Right then. So far, we’ve had a dig at digital, a pop at passive, and blown a long raspberry at long-form video; it’s time now to get irate because of the way we obsess about ‘interruption’ in our industry.

This is a quote from Dr Samuel Johnson (the real one, not the even-more-amusing @DrSamuelJohnson on Twitter) in 1759 from The Idler:

“Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetick.” (I’m guessing that ‘pathetic’ doesn’t mean crap but more pathos-provoking).

It’s interesting that even 250 years ago there were apparently too many ads, but even more so is that he identified the need to ‘cut through’ the noise with magnificence and eloquence and emotion; surely still three ingredients of all good brand communication.

In a way, Johnson was also talking about the notion of interruption. Interruption in advertising, we are so often told, is a bad thing. Johnson’s contemporaries may have been captured by it, but sophisticated, empowered consumers do not want to have commercial messages thrust at them; they need to be engaged by modern brands and to start conversations with them.

I’m not going to argue that engagement isn’t key and that conversations with consumers aren’t a great ambition for a brand to have. But I do believe that you can’t expect people to ’pull’ a brand until it has ‘pushed’ in some way; you can’t have a conversation until you’ve been introduced.

There is a myriad of ways a brand can choose from to push themselves in front of people for the first time – including retail facings, PR, doordrops, posters etc. etc. – but all involve occupying either a consumer’s space or time. But, without making that overture on their own terms, brands would be entirely subject to random and commoditised searching, which is no way to be the guardian of a brand.

All brand communications are essentially a form of interruption but some have greater potential for annoyance: the inserts that drop out of a mag, a pop-up, branding on a public venue, unsolicited mail, whether off- or online. None of those are ever expected and rarely reward the space and time that they occupy. Print, online and outdoor ads are arguably much less annoying but perhaps only because they are more easily edited out or ignored.

Is this an unresolvable conundrum? Is it simply impossible for a brand to create impact and get noticed without being a pain?

Broadcast ads are a slightly different case I’d argue; radio and TV ads are not unexpected, at least not on commercial channels. I would argue they are not even interruption because, with a few exceptions, the content they appear within is constructed specially to contain them. Like the doors and windows of a house, they are part of the overall design and are in-built, not rammed in. It doesn’t stop them from being annoying on occasions though.

There will always be a vocal minority who avoid all advertising per se, be it TV, radio, banners, pop-ups or posters. There will always be some who reach for their remote when the TV ads appear (although we know from BARB that people are watching more TV ads at normal speed than ever before at a time when many have intuitive technologies that enable them to avoid them should they really wish).

But lots of people enjoy lots of TV ads a lot. Lots of them. We’ve plenty of footage of them doing just that: dancing, clapping, salivating, singing, searching, smiling, reciting the dialogue. They don’t mind being interrupted if we make it worth their while (cf. Bill Bernbach). In fact the word interruption wouldn’t even occur to them unless the ad was bad. Even the less entertaining ads are welcome if they are relevant, timely and tell viewers something they want to know (e.g. 10% off tomorrow).

Even when ads are not welcomed with unbridled joy, many of our research projects have revealed that most people understand and accept the implicit commercial contract whereby advertising subsidises the programmes they love. This contract is reinforced when broadcasters make their content more accessible and convenient.

How many ‘conversations’ with brands would we all have to have in order to reach even a tenth of the audience reached by the 2.45 billion TV ads seen every day in the UK? There are around 7,800 brands advertising on TV, divide that by the population and, even if each of us had conversations with 10 brands, the average brand would only have around 70,000 ‘friends’ and precious little opportunity to influence the other 53 million members of the population.

Engagement has to start somewhere. Few brands can sit around waiting for consumers to come along and engage with what they’re up to. The problem is not a structural one but qualitative and tonal. As Martin Boase said, so long as brands interrupt with grace and charm they will become welcome guests in the nation’s living rooms, and ones who might be invited into other areas of people’s lives too. Let’s stop worrying about the interruption part and start obsessing instead on the engagement.


    Great blogg Tess. Engagement is indeed the challenge and the opportunity – in this digital world we live in there are so many new ways to engage consumers. Tonality is critical as you say, as is achieving critical mass. We can often start the conversation through ‘graceful and charming’ interuption and are now learning how to either amplify this or increasingly make this more relevant to consumers with engagement strategies. Thanks for the inspiring read.

  • mauriceCflynn

    Stimulating blog Tess Ive added to my blogroll – after 20 years in the industry I feel more people would happily watch ads if they were at least slightly relevant, not endlessly repetitive and not crammed into every legally available ad slot so that any TV show is so riddled with breaks that you spend more time making cups of tea than watching the show!