Imagine your ideal television-watching experience: You’re posted up on a pile of cushions, dog cuddling in your lap. A tub of popcorn separates bae and you. And likely, in this peak Netflix-and-chill sitch, there are exactly zero commercials.
None. Nada. Zip. Just smooth sailing sans pitches for detergent, shopping sales, and whatever else “regular” television’s got between segments.
With streaming services becoming increasingly popular and binge-watching feeling more like the norm, it’s easy to see commercials as media pariah. Researchers agree that services like Netflix are changing the expectations of viewers of what a television experience should be like. Why have commercials if you don’t have to? Cut the fat.
Commercial-hating, after all, seems in line with human behavior. We are impatient creatures who demand instant gratification — there is just so much content available to us that we can’t be bothered with interruptions. In an examination of millennials, Elon University concluded that: “The Millennial generation will benefit and suffer from their ‘always-on’ lives, from their amazing ability to juggle many tasks to their thirst for instant gratification.”
But spoiler alert: Commercials actually help you enjoy what you’re watching. A 2009 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research essentially flipped the script on the traditional television-watching experience: Instead of studying people watching commercials, they studied how the commercials affected how the people felt about the actual show. They found that across six separate studies, regardless of what the commercial was about or how well it was made, commercial interruption actually intensified the enjoyment of watching the show.
Sounds unexpected, even wrong? Blame adaptation. People adapt to positive experiences as they get more accustomed to them, whether it’s adjusting from the butterfly stages of a romantic relationship or later episodes of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Psychologists call this the Hedonic treadmill: It’s when humans get a happy high from something that eventually teeters off and stabilizes. We become used to what we enjoy, rendering it joyless.
“For many television shows, enjoyment intensity tends to decline as the show progresses,” the authors write. “However, commercial interruptions can disrupt this adaptation process and (at least partially) restore viewers’ enjoyment to its original intensity.”
The assumption that we don’t like commercials persists partly because — as previous studies have demonstrated — people constantly underestimate their ability to adapt. Our lack of interest in disproving that commercials blow can also be blamed; as the study demonstrates, we only realize that the interruptions are enjoyable once we’re forced to acknowledge the fact. The researchers write:
“Perhaps because of a nearly unanimous intuition that commercials always reduce viewers’ enjoyment, there has been almost no academic research examining the effect of commercial interruptions on consumers’ reactions to the television shows in which they are embedded.”
Other studies also demonstrate that it’s not necessarily commercials that rub us the wrong way — it’s bad commercials. While that might seem obvious, our brains respond to good commercials basically the same way they respond to good television: EEG tests demonstrate that brain activity alters when we re-watch commercials we remember as pleasant, triggering the same parts of the brain that are tied to positive emotions. Funny commercials have also been scientifically proven to push us to engage more.
The issue here is willing engagement: Maybe people want to ignore studies that say they do like commercials, but advertising isn’t going to stop. And while it would be smart for streaming services like Netflix and HBO to plug in some sort of pausing process in their steady provision of content — maybe something visually nuts like Off the Air — it’s also fair to assume that the trend is going to be for services to cut to traditional “here’s-60-overly-exuberant-seconds-on-the-ShamWow” commercials. And while you may be complaining about television commercials today, your kids are probably going to complain about augmented reality ads in the future.
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