Online research: the crack cocaine of media evaluation

It’s 1987, a hurricane has torn apart southern England, nobody is putting Baby anywhere near the corner in new release Dirty Dancing, and Alex Ferguson has been at Manchester United for a year.

Elsewhere, and slightly lower key, the annual TGI survey of 24,000 UK adults has started to include dozens of lifestyle statements. One of those statements, which has survived to this day is “On television, sometimes the advertisements are as good as the programmes”.

25 years on and there is much debate about the consistent decline in the percentage of people agreeing with this statement about the relative enjoyment of TV ads and programmes.

Dramatic emphasis is added by the fact that this is one of the few statements to have remained intact since 1987. It feels a little like watching a revolution, albeit in market research slow motion; the subtext is that the great British public has fallen slightly out of love with TV ads.


But this, as we know, is nonsense. It is totally at odds with the constant evidence we see of enthralment and more than a little bit of love when it comes to TV ads – not least via social media. During the relatively short history of the Thinkboxes (our creative awards), we have celebrated the brilliance and undoubted popularity of recent classics like Hovis, T-Mobile, and

Ads like these have got people talking, sharing, engaging, and interacting like never before. We only have to kick off a focus group by getting them talking about their favourite TV ads and we struggle to then make them focus on the topic being discussed.

It’s quite a paradox. So why is it happening?

To some extent, it is a reflection of more cynical times – for example, significantly MORE people also agree that “I rarely notice the ads in papers/mags” or “I expect advertising to be entertaining” than in 1987.

There is also the fact that people watch many more TV ads now than they did back then – the average number of ads watched at normal speed now (45 a day) is almost double what it was in 1987. There may also be an issue that so many more ads on TV means a much broader spectrum of creative values!

But I think the main answer lies in the environment within which the statement was originally made. Let’s think back to the television landscape in 1987… [a harp plays and the screen dissolves in wavy lines].

In 1987 we only had four channels to choose from and those channels did not broadcast 24/7. Most people did not have a VCR, so if you missed a favourite programme there was no way of catching up on it. Most households only had one TV set, so you generally watched what other people in the household had selected (unless you were my dad, in which case you held on to the remote control as if your life depended upon it!). The multichannel audience was tiny and the multichannel proposition was pretty basic.

In short, as with most things at the time, you got what you were given!

Top shows included the usual soaps (Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Brookside and EastEnders) plus newcomers such as Inspector Morse and Ruth Rendell Mysteries. Sitcom hits included Home To Roost, Three Up Two Down and Bread.

Set against this was a TV ad industry that was beginning to see advertising as entertainment rather than pure persuasion. Although this trend had begun in the 1970s, it was in the late 1980s that seminal campaigns were on screen, like Castlemaine XXXX (“I think we overdid it with the sherry!”), Levi’s 501s (the laundrette would never be the same again), and the famous BT series of ads featuring Maureen Lipman (“He’s got an ology!”). Elements of comedy, cinematic storytelling and the emerging music video scene became far more prevalent.

If we now return to 2011, we still have great TV ads but one of the key differences is the choice of and access to a much greater range of programmes. Unlike 25 years ago, we never have to sit through programmes we don’t want to watch and we have a much greater selection of programmes we DO want to watch. The US has begun to provide outstanding drama and comedy, whilst UK broadcasters are engaging audiences like never before – witness the audience ‘buzz’ and plaudits for programmes such as The X Factor, Coronation Street’s 50th Anniversary special, This Is England ’86, The Inbetweeners, Sky’s continuing excellent sports coverage…

This fact is certainly being reflected in the Appreciation Scores given to TV programmes. The BBC reports that average AI (Appreciation Index) across all programmes have been improving consistently in recent years.

It’s no surprise then that the decline in people agreeing that TV ads are often as entertaining as the programmes really started when significant numbers of people began to subscribe to pay TV and had increasing access to recording equipment, receiving a far greater choice of programming and reducing the need to watch programming that was not enjoyed.

So, rather than interpreting the decline negatively (ads are worse), perhaps we should interpret it positively: our enjoyment of TV – and the quality and amount we can enjoy – has increased. It is all relative.

  • Lindsey Clay
    Lindsey Clay
    CEO, Thinkbox
  • Posted under
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