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Welcome to My World

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Think you know the neatly apportioned media-consumption habits of today's Americans? Consider these snapshots from the country's heartland last month. Joel, 30 years old, spent an entire workday not just with TV, but with radio as well. Brian, 31, devoted more time to household chores on one Saturday than he did on his computer or watching TV. Vanesa, 24, spent twice as much time napping on a given Sunday than she did with all media combined. Kathy, 52, logged much more time online on a typical weekday than in front of a television.

Is this the media behavior you'd expect from these people?

In an effort to assess how Americans interact with the plethora of media that surrounds them, Adweek enlisted researchers from Ball State University's Center for Media Design (CMD) to observe those four individuals for one day each (between 12 and 15 hours) during the first week of October. Joel, a barber, is African American; Vanesa, an environmental chemist, is Latina; Kathy, an elementary school principal, and Brian, a real estate agent, are Caucasian. All attended college, are middle- and upper-class wage earners and political moderates. They most certainly are not part of the "media elite" on America's coasts: They're residents of either Indianapolis or Muncie, Ind., the latter of which is known to sociologists as Middletown, the quintessential heart of middle America. They're supposed to represent the consumers who have traditionally been packaged and sold to marketers in dayparts and on rate cards. Turns out they're not so easily categorized.

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Joel and Kathy, observed during their workdays, don't conform to demographic assumptions at all. Joel spent no time on the computer that day, and Kathy, the oldest of the four, hardly watches TV. Brian, who has a new baby, is spending less time with his Xbox and television. Vanesa, a recent college graduate, isn't a techno-mad early adopter. She has yet to buy a DVR and, on the Sunday she was observed, spent nearly as much time listening to the radio as she did online.

Clearly, each snapshot is just that: a moment in time. But the very different patterns of media behavior on display underscore the complexity of a world in which consumers increasingly program their own media lives and content is no longer defined by platform.

"It really serves to illustrate the complexity that lies beneath any summary measures and also to underpin the fact that every individual is an anomaly," says Ball State's Michael Bloxham, CMD's director of insight and research. "It shows how communications planning is becoming way more complex than it was five years ago, and as complex as it is now, it will look like milk and honey compared to what it will be like five years from now. It's not a question of whether consumers will take advantage of all the different media options they have. It's a question of at what rate they'll do so."

Look no further than the Olympics and the presidential election in this watershed year to see how quickly consumers are shifting their media behavior. Americans are migrating to new screens for information and entertainment even as they increase their TV viewership. Marketers that continue to rely on "interrupt and repeat" strategies to grab the attention of these media multitaskers -- who are increasingly more interested in "me media" than mass media-do so at their own risk. Social media and Internet video are transforming the Web experience, and portability promises to reinvent the Internet yet again.

"Just as rapidly as we've seen Facebook and MySpace change the Internet, we're going to see a massive reinvention of the Web because of mobile in the next three to four years," says Greg Kahn, svp of strategic insights at Publicis USA's Optimedia.

There are hints of that in Adweek's group in Indiana. While all four have cell phones, Brian's is an iPhone that he uses for music, e-mail, watching TV and movies, and playing games. He considers it his most essential media device. Brian, like many young consumers, no longer uses a landline at home.

The speed of the ascendancy of multiple screens is remarkable: In a survey this past May by Pew Internet, 73 percent of American adults said they use the Internet, compared to just 16 percent in 1996. That this percentage is soaring without a decline in TV consumption shows the degree to which consumers are increasing their time spent overall with media and multitasking activities.

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