After the Switch


NEW YORK In June of last year, less than a month after Nielsen Media Research unveiled its new commercial ratings system known as C3, NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno aired a live 45-second commercial for Garmin's Nuvi car navigational system. It featured Leno sidekick John Melendez expounding on a serious male malady he termed "direction disorder," which often causes men to become "lost, confused and not knowing where to turn."

The timing was no accident: It was the first live spot the late-night program had aired in 14 years. And it was directly tied to the client's desire to try a different technique to keep viewers tuned to its marketing message in the rapidly expanding DVR world, just as the industry was switching to a measurement system that not only measures audiences for commercials but also tabulates playback viewing of the spots.

"Probably most people had no idea they were being pitched a commercial," said Steve Lovell, media sponsorship marketing manager at Garmin and the architect of the spot. "It looked like a skit." He said that post-telecast research showed that effectiveness and awareness levels for the live spot were significantly higher than for many of the company's traditional 30-second spots. The company is planning another live spot on the Tonight Show in the second quarter of this year.

The live Garmin spot illustrates the sharp focus that has been placed this season on viewing patterns of ads, driven largely by the switch to commercial ratings. The adoption of C3 marks the first time in the 60-plus year history of the television medium that the official yardstick for buying and selling airtime has focused on viewing of the spots and not the shows.

Although C3 is seen as a major improvement over program-focused ratings, there is wide debate about how long the new system, which measures the average rating to commercial minutes within programs, will remain in place. Some agency executives, including Magna Global's Steve Sternberg, are pushing Nielsen to adopt a new methodology that would measure only commercial pods, as opposed to averaging (and weighting) every minute of airtime with one second or more of commercial content. Other buy-side executives, including GroupM chief investment officer Rino Scanzoni argue that C3 will remain in place for the foreseeable future for a range of reasons, not the least of which is that the industry is not technologically prepared to switch to a system with more detailed data such as brand-specific ratings.

Many clients, however, said they aren't satisfied with C3 ratings because they do not measure viewing to specific commercials, and instead provide only average audience levels to spots within programs. "Advertisers want to know who is tuning into their brand-specific commercials," said Robert Liodice, president of the Association of National Advertisers. In an ANA survey of marketers earlier this year, 87 percent of those polled indicated they wanted to see the implementation of a ratings system that measures viewing to specific ads.

"The question people want answered is how many people saw my spot," said Steve Sullivan, svp, communications services, Liberty Mutual, Boston, and current board chairman of the ANA. "The answer is available in Europe," he said, referring to rating services that measure viewing to individual spots outside the U.S.

But even the ANA admits that getting there won't be easy. A year ago, Liodice challenged Nielsen to develop and implement a system for measuring specific ads by 2009. That timetable, Liodice now acknowledges, was too optimistic. "It won't be a year from now," he said.

While admitting C3 represents progress, he called that system a "temporary step," but wouldn't predict exactly when the industry would be prepared to shift to a system that measures specific spots. "It's within line of sight," he said. "I do have confidence that it will take place. We won't give up the fight for greater accountability with brand-specific commercial ratings."

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