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Why Viewers Switch Channels During Ad Breaks, and What You Can Do About It

Why Viewers Switch Channels During Ad Breaks, and What You Can Do About It

Maren Becker, Thomas P. Scholdra, Werner J. Reinartz and Manuel Berkmann

Traditional advertising is making a comeback.

Recent studies show that marketers are increasingly turning from online advertising to traditional media such as TV, in part to exploit its high reach. In February 2022, marketers predicted that traditional advertising spending would increase by 2.9%.


However, effective TV advertising requires exposure, which is jeopardized when viewers deliberately avoid ads. For instance, when viewers resort to changing the channel (i.e., zapping) during ad breaks, advertisers lose the ability to communicate the brand message, leading to wasted investment. Zapping is also a problem for broadcasters because it reduces the reach of the entire ad break and thus diminishes the attractiveness of the channel for advertisers.

In our new Journal of Marketing article involving two related studies, we investigate the role of TV ad content in driving or mitigating viewers’ zapping behavior. Our first study draws on a unique multisource dataset from a German TV broadcaster to answer the following questions:

  • Which content factors drive or mitigate viewers’ zapping behavior?
  • Do these effects depend on the type of category?

The dataset comprises information on the viewing behavior of more than 2,500 individuals and expert-coded ad content of 1,315 ads in the context of a major TV show: The Voice of Germany. The ad content data reflect six content factors:

  1. Informativeness
  2. Brand presence (i.e., featuring the brand prominently)
  3. Brand timing (i.e., showing the brand early in the ad)
  4. Positive emotionality
  5. Creativity
  6. Humor

Results show that the content of the ads does indeed influence consumers’ zapping behavior. While a high level of creativity in the ads reduces zapping, highly informational content, strong brand presence, and early brand timing increase zapping. Thus, to discourage zapping behavior, managers should invest in creativity and refrain from too much information and too many branding cues. Furthermore, the brand should be placed more toward the end of the ad.

We also conclude that the effects of advertising content on zapping vary significantly with category characteristics. For example, informativeness is more detrimental in terms of zapping for goods where consumers can only judge quality after consumption (in so-called experiential goods like restaurants) than for goods where consumers can judge quality before consumption (in so-called search goods like electronics). The effects of other content factors are category dependent as well, thereby underscoring the need for managers to consider category characteristics when selecting advertising content.

In our second study, we investigate why these content factors influence zapping. We collected survey information on 11 psychological responses from 3,037 viewers for a subsample of 276 ads. These 11 psychological responses reflect two broad psychological response factors: enjoyment (determined, for example, by liking, showing interest, feeling touched, or being entertained) and irritation (determined, for example, by annoyance, exaggeration, skepticism, offense, or feeling overwhelmed). Combining the two studies’ datasets, we examine how enjoyment and irritation explain the effect of content on zapping.

Results of the second study indicate that content drives zapping through irritation, but not through enjoyment. In other words, it is more important for advertisers to avoid psychological reactions reflecting irritation, such as annoyance or offense, than to elicit favorable reactions reflecting enjoyment, such as entertainment or interest. These results further show that informativeness, brand presence, and brand timing drive zapping by triggering irritation, and creativity mitigates zapping by reducing it.

Read the full article

From: Maren Becker, Thomas Scholdra, Manuel Berkmann, and Werner Reinartz, “The Effect of Content on Zapping in TV Advertising,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Maren Becker is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Cologne, Germany.

Thomas P. Scholdra is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Cologne, Germany.

Werner J. Reinartz is Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Research in Retailing (IFH), University of Cologne, Germany.

Manuel Berkmann is Project Manager, Phoenix Group.