Yes, TV is an attention bargain – but even more so than Lumen think

Yes, TV is an attention bargain – but even more so than Lumen think

It’s hard to read incredibly positive things about TV advertising and yet be compelled to argue with them, but sometimes you have to, says Thinkbox’s Matt Hill.


Mike Follett from Lumen’s recent article – “Why TV appears to be an ‘attention bargain” – was packed with positives for TV advertising. So why am I not celebrating?

Well I am a bit, but not completely. Although I’m cheering the overall direction of Mike’s piece, unfortunately there are some important caveats that need adding. I’m concerned about how some of the Lumen data could be dangerously misinterpreted.

The problem is the binary nature of the interpretation of “attention” in the article and the measurement limitations of visual or gaze-based technology.

I’ve also got a bee in my bonnet about the conflation of ad viewability with ad exposure, but we’ll come on to that in a minute.

The Lumen data claims that in the UK “around 43% of TV ads get some visual attention — meaning that 57% of your TV ads get ignored.” At face value: ouch.

But I think that’s an overly simplistic and potentially misleading takeout.

Visual and audio attention

Firstly, attention can’t solely be measured by visual attention – something Mike does acknowledge in his article but which I would like to dwell on more.

The audio in audio visual is a pretty important component of how advertising generates effectiveness. Thinkbox held a deep dive session into the nature of what attention actually is at an event earlier this year and learnt that while visual or gaze direction-based measures are a decent proxy, we mustn’t presume that AV-based advertising that isn’t looked at is entirely ineffective. People will often be heard singing along to the ad jingles or soundtracks whilst visually distracted by their phones.

The article also suggested that TV has a “viewability problem”, with ads playing to people who are asleep or out of the room. Lumen says 80% of TV ads are viewable because of this.

However, BARB measures for in-room presence. It asks panellists to indicate when they are present in the room with the TV (US TV measurement doesn’t do this. If a TV is on in New York then the ad impacts are counted).

Again, this is acknowledged in the article, but not in the data. So the 20% that’s cut off the top as unviewable is somewhat harsh for a UK market that’s doing its best to ensure advertisers aren’t charged for TV ads that play to empty rooms.

Viewability vs Exposure

More importantly, though, this is not a viewability issue at all, it’s an exposure issue.

Viewability is when an ad is possible to be seen or heard – so if it’s under the fold or only on half the screen it has a viewability problem. Exposure is when a person (who is awake) is in the presence of a viewable ad – as I’ve written about before.

If that sounds like I’m pointlessly nit-picking, the distinction does matter. Viewability standards are in place to make sure advertisers are only paying for ads that the media owner can measure have been played out or displayed in way that has the potential to be seen.

Advertisers don’t pay for TV ads that are fast-forwarded, so the broadcasters are setting the bar very high for what they’re asking advertisers to pay for. Where they can measure ads that aren’t viewable, they don’t charge.

This is obviously not the same as a media owner charging an advertiser for an ad that they know hasn’t had the potential to be seen. It’s a subtle but important difference that speaks to the integrity of the media owner and their charging model.


So, this stat that 57% of TV ads are ignored, from a source as credible as Lumen in an environment as respected as The Media Leader, is incredibly dangerous and ripe for misuse.

No doubt the sales team AI algorithms over at Meta will have scraped this quote from The Media Leader and pasted it into all sales decks and VR presentations within minutes of it being posted.

The enduring power of TV advertising

Attention measurement is coming. Businesses like Lumen, Amplified Intelligence, and TVision are at the forefront of an exciting addition to the art of media planning and advertising effectiveness.

Visual-based attention measurement is an exciting development and when it’s used under the provision that it doesn’t provide a definitive view, it can be a powerful tool to help us make better decisions. Lumen is on to a winner and the partnership with TVision is a really smart move.

And I believe that TV advertising is going to benefit from this. All the data so far, as Mike concludes, suggests that TV advertising is an attention magnet.

Combine this with the crazily low price point of TV, its reach potential, its high quality, properly regulated environment and the implicit signals of trust and quality this evokes, and you’re left with a compelling picture of the enduring power of TV advertising.

So Mike’s headline is bang on. TV is very much an attention bargain – but even more so than the article suggests.

Matt Hill is director of research and planning at Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial TV in the UK.

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