There has always been talk of how new forms of media are driving out the old ones. Interactive media will assume the position of televised media, as it involves the viewer to a much greater degree than watching TV does. When television first arrived, it was seen as more effective than radio, given that it provided an extra dimension, namely image. And radio, in turn, is considered more effective than print media. But does that actually apply to advertisements as well?

Contrary to this idea, studies have shown from early on that watching a TV commercial is a passive activity, whereas looking at a print ad is active. Television involves the person to a very small degree. This means that while watching a TV ad, the person gets few spontaneous ideas where he or she relates the content of the commercial to his or her own life.

One reason for this lies in the fact that when reading a text, you control your own time and attention – the reader can decide for him- or herself when to turn a page and what to focus on. With television, there is no such control. Furthermore, upon the first viewing, the watcher has no idea how interesting the commercial might prove, and hence he or she has a passive wait-and-see attitude.

This topic has also been studied by means of neuropsychological methods. Examination of brain waves confirms that the main electrical brain response depends more on the type of media (whether it’s a print ad or TV commercial) than on the content of TV ads. It turns out that looking at a print ad generates rapid brain waves, whereas watching a TV commercial produces slow brain waves and is therefore a passive activity.

A visual observation of brain waves also shows that the wave amplitude with print ads is consistently about five times larger than that associated with TV commercials. The higher waves generated by print ads may be explained by the fact that the person looking at the print ad must make an effort to adapt his or her eyes to a nearby stimulus (image). In addition, a tension is formed in the neck muscles, as the viewer turns his or her head and tilts it slightly forward. Therefore, it might be just the strain necessary for reading in general.

Nevertheless, studies of brain waves indicate that in case of a print ad, the viewer makes an effort to learn something from the ad. With a TV commercial, on the other hand, the viewer is passive – if the commercial communicates something to him or her, it’s all well and good, but if it fails to do so, there’s no problem either. The commercial ends and the viewer will make no further effort to re-watch it with double the attention (as he or she would in case of a print ad).

Due to this fundamentally different way of viewing, the behavior of people viewing TV commercials and print ads is slightly different as well. If TV audience encounters something or somebody they have previously seen on TV (i.e. have passively let play out before their eyes), they experience a moment of surprise: “A-ha! I have seen this before!” This is the first time they have an active response to the thing in question. As a TV audience, they haven’t had a chance to reflect on what they saw, and hence this outburst of response is vague and formless, spontaneous and often seemingly immature. Thus, it can be said that upon a later encounter with what was seen on television, the TV audience is more active (albeit clumsier) and more experience-oriented.

The viewers of a print ad, on the other hand, have had time to ponder over what they saw and develop their own opinion. Should they then have a real-life encounter with what they saw in the ad, they already have a prepared and “mature” answer. At the same time, they haven’t received all of the pieces of information that the TV audience got, and hence there are many aspects of the thing/person seen in the ad that they are not aware of and do not respond to. Accordingly, the viewers of print ads have a narrower and more specific attitude: they either respond in a deliberate manner or do not respond at all. Upon later contact, they are more passive, more discriminating, more mature and more oriented to information/message.

Although researchers have tried to disprove the claim that watching TV is always a low involvement activity, they haven’t succeeded. It is doubtful whether there is any systematic processing of the ad by the viewer. TV commercials do not sufficiently motivate the viewers to pay the commercial enough attention to be able to become convinced by it. Consequently, if TV ads have an effect at all, it is mainly subconscious.

Nevertheless, it cannot be said that a low level of involvement in 100% negative. TV commercials still work – in the year 2000, the average American saw 95 TV commercials a day; in 2010, about an hour’s worth of TV ads and promotions was “consumed” each day. There are various rational justifications for this (e.g. reaching a broad audience at a relatively low price). At the same time, it has been argued that the low involvement level of TV commercials can even be advantageous for the advertisers. The reasons for this are as follows:

1. Psychological experiments have demonstrated that an emotion is communicated more effectively when less attention is paid to the ad, since a low attention level prevents the development of counterarguments. Hence, TV commercials are more successful at imparting an emotional content to the viewers.

2. Neurological studies have found that the most effective ads are those that appeal to our irrational impulses, such as emotions and sex drive. These ads have an effect on our subconscious even while we’re in a passive state in front of the TV. Therefore, emotions are important and the potent ability of TV commercials to (inconspicuously) communicate emotions is the key factor behind the success of this medium.

3. And finally – if the viewers pay less attention to an ad, they don’t process it as thoroughly and can watch the ad for a longer time without becoming frustrated and bored by it.

To sum up, the way TV commercials and print ads are perceived is remarkably different, and that also goes for the viewer who receives these ads either consciously or subconsciously. A TV ad does not involve or teach the viewer; however, it cunningly uses emotions to work it influence 🙂

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