You’ve seen this number before: an average American consumer today is exposed to—or “bombarded by”, or “inundated with”—5,000 advertising messages a day. This number finds its way into slide decks, it peppers newspaper articles, and it is quoted in academic papers.
You probably used it at least once. I know I did. Only today, I realized I had no idea where this number was coming from.
Complaints about advertising clutter date back at least as far as 1759, when Samuel Johnson wrote, “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 pathetic.”
So, apparently the clutter problem isn’t new and it’s not getting any better, but why 5,000? Whether this number is even plausible will be the topic of another post. The problem at hand is that the number by now has acquired a status of an urban myth—whoever talks about it references “a study” or “an analyst”, and its reliability varies from it being “an estimate” to a self-evident fact. Yet, after a few diligent hours, I couldn’t find any methodology or a specific source behind whatever studies had arrived at the conclusion. What I found, though, is that the 5,000 number had mutated into all sorts of weird shapes.
So, where does it come from? Here’s what I got so far.
NY Times, 1988: “Studies show that the typical consumer is bombarded by 5,000 advertising messages a day.”
Journal of Advertising Research, 1998: “Americans are exposed to over 500 commercial messages a day (Bovee and Arens, 1995).” Apparently, the author is referring to this old textbook. This number doesn’t seem to be a typo; another researcher on the same quest quotes a subsequent 1999 edition of the text book estimating the range to be within 500-1,000 messages.
The only solid but not very helpful number is in this press release from 2000: “Jupiter forecasts that by 2005, consumers will be exposed to 950 impressions online per usage day, more than doubling from 440 impressions in 1999.”
In 2004, J. Walker Smith, the CEO of the research company Yankelovich Partners, gave a speech to ANA in which he described the findings of a recent study his company had just finished. This February 2004 study measured people’s attitudes towards advertising and how it had changed since the last similar probe in 1961 (it had worsened, predictably). Here’s a write-up on ClickZ (2004) and a pdf of the press release (April 15, 2004) that outlines the core findings.
Neither the ClickZ article nor the press release say anything about ad clutter measurements being the focus of the study. The press release is full of all kinds of gloomy numbers, but while Smith does address the ad clutter problem, he offers no specifics.
Now check out these press quotes that would reference the study in the years to follow.
Inc.com in 2005: “On average, Americans are subject to some 3,000 essentially random pitches per day. Two-thirds of people surveyed in a Yankelovich Partners study said they feel “constantly bombarded” by ads, and 59% said the ads they see have little or no relevance to them.”
On the other hand, Philip Kotler wrote the same year, “The average American is exposed to several hundred ad messages a day and is trying to tune out.” (Kellogg, 2005)
Magazine Engagement, 2006: “All this means that the average person now sees over 3,000 advertising messages a day.”
Another NY Times story, in 2007, again quotes Yankelovich: “Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today.”
From there, the meme starts its journey through the blogosphere.
Buzz Builder blog, 2007, quotes the NY Times story that quotes Yankelovich: “The story mentions a recent Yankelovich study which estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with 5,000 today.”
Branding Communications blog, 2007: “Twenty-five years ago it was estimated that people were getting exposed to 1,500 messages per day. Now it’s estimated that this number is approximately 3000-4000 per day.” Also, “Message clutter could reach 5,000 per day by 2010.”
Other, undated sources:
Wensmedia (cached, undated): “Consumers are exposed to more than 3,600 advertising messages a day, including everything from packaging to signage, and from radio to billboards.”
Road Runner Ads, undated: “The average American is exposed to an astonishing 700 advertising messages per day.”
Canada Post, undated: “Canadian consumers are inundated with hundreds of advertising messages each day through a variety of media.”
Respond 2 Creative, undated: “Consider the facts. The average consumer is exposed to over 13,000 marketing messages per day.”
Business Encyclopedia on Answers.com, undated: “Advertising has so permeated everyday life that individuals can expect to be exposed to more than 1,200 different messages each day.”
Unnamed, undated: “One estimate holds that the typical person sees 2,700 advertising messages a day.”
So far, I have three leads: Yankelovich, the Contemporary Advertising (Bovee and Arens) text book, and David Shenk’s Data Smog. Updates will be posted as they come.
A couple of months ago, I tried to track down the source of the often-cited number of ads—5,000—an average American consumer sees each day. Among these sources was a speech by the head of Yankelovich, Dr. J. Walker Smith. Dr. Smith has just left a very detailed comment to the original post. His comment is reprinted below.
“Advertising clutter is the single biggest problem with marketing. Not just today, but as long as advertising has been around. People are annoyed by ads that show up in unfamiliar places, but become used to them over time. So marketers respond by finding even more unfamiliar places. It’s cumulative and it’s getting worse. Yet, consumers can process no more information today than they could before, and perhaps even less. Multi-tasking is just a fancy word for paying little attention to many more things at once. If we really want to do good marketing, then we have to get out of the clutter business and stay solidly in the communication business. It’s tempting to try and address our challenges by adding more weight to our media buys, but this only raises the cost of doing advertising, and it never goes down in this arms race. We wind up in a place where it costs ever more to get the same old — and sometimes declining — response. Clutter is a fundamental problem for us.
So, the first question becomes one of the extent of this problem. In our work at Yankelovich we have relied on the work of others to quantify it. But it’s clear that there are many different opinions. As we stated in our book on this issue, Coming to Concurrence (2005), it’s important not to get too caught up in the exact numbers. Rather, just use the numbers to get a qualitative feel for the issue. Regrettably, reporters don’t have the space or inclination to include such qualifiers in their stories. But you don’t even have to use ad exposure numbers. You can just use marketing productivity estimates. Either way, you see the problem.
Still, it’s interesting to know how these ad exposure estimates are calculated. The oldest such estimate is the one cited by David Shenk in Data Smog. His figure comes from a figure cited in Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book Future Shock. Toffler’s figure came from a conference speech that cited a number calculated by Bill Moran for use in that speech (delivered by his boss) when he was running the research function at Y&R. I know this because I am a friend of Bill’s and he has related this story to me. Bill made a simple calculation. He simply conducted a thought exercise and went through the typical day for a typical person in a typical American big city in the 1960s. How many times would such a person be exposed to some sort of ad, logo or promotion? He came to around 500. It’s that simple, and that’s where this early figure comes from.
Note what is being calculated here. Not the number of ads people pay attention to, but the number of ads that people might pay attention to. It’s exposure opportunities. Obviously, we live lives nowadays in which ever more of the white space around us is crowded with ads. Thus, we have many more opportunities for ad exposure.
The sources of contemporary estimates are harder to pin down. The 1988 New York Times article cited by Ilya is the earliest one I’ve seen. The earliest one I could find for our research for Coming to Concurrence was a 1991 Business Week article written by reporter Mark Lander. Unfortunately, he references no original source. The best academic paper utilizing these day is a 1995 paper by Eli Noam entitled “Visions of the Media Age: Taming the Information Monster.” But it’s pretty easy to do the math in the same way that Bill Moran did it many decades ago. Marketing consultant Tom Eglehoff puts the relevant numbers on the table to do so in a blog he posted some years ago at SmallTownMarketing.com. You wind up with numbers in range of those cited today. In fact, if you want an even better understanding of the extent of contemporary clutter, I’d recommend the first chapter of Coming to Concurrence.
Anyhow, the bottom is that clutter is not an urban myth. The exact number may be hard to agree on, but it is an exponentially higher number with every passing decade. It’s a clutter of ad exposure that runs head on into the ever-constant cognitive capacities of humans. This makes it a crisis of marketing productivity. And that’s the important take-away that I spoke about at the AAAA Management Conference in 2004 (not the ANA). Alas, they haven’t invited me back. [grin]
J. Walker Smith