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How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.
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(Photo: sjsharktank/Flickr)

(Photo: sjsharktank/Flickr)

The Watch ESPN app is a technological marvel. It's the type of thing that makes you feel like the future is here or at least getting a heck of a lot closer: a simple and easy way to watch sports without a cable box. For now, you still need a cable subscription—or at least know someone who has one—but it's a step in the inevitable direction of unbundling and watch-what-you-want programming.

The ads, however. Man, the ads are just brutal.

During every commercial break in Monday night's San Francisco 49ers-St. Louis Rams game, a Toyota Prius advertisement played straight away. It's not a terrible spot ... the first or second time. But by the middle of the second quarter—NFL games having a lot of commercial breaks and all—I was about ready to either throw something through the screen or throw my Roku out the window, if not both. Play this video around 20 times over the next three hours, and you'll have some idea of how I felt:

(Note that YouTube plays a pre-roll ad before actually playing the content I want to watch. Welcome to the seventh circle of hell.)

A Surface Pro 3 Tablet ad and a couple Geico clips also featured in heavy rotation, although not quite as frequently as the Prius one.

This is a problem, and not just for the consumer who gets annoyed and has a jingle stuck in his or her head for days on end. The lack of inventory could hurt the future of the market, which in turn could make it harder for advertisers to see a return on investment, which means rights holders will be able to make less money and have less incentive to give the consumer what they want.

Only the boldest brands advertise, so, according to the study, consumers see only a couple of ads on repeat, which leads to them getting annoyed and ultimately giving up on the company.

In the current marketplace, it's the forward-thinking brands that are experimenting with video ads placed in new venues. It's a relatively new technology—no one has any idea how to measure the effectiveness of more traditional forms of online advertising, much less a video on the Watch ESPN app—so more cautious brands (read: almost everyone) stay away.

The result is a small number of spots repeated over and over again. Toyota might not be paying for the ads—as these are often the type of things that get thrown into large media buys as a bonus—or they might be parting with some nominal fraction of their overall advertising budget, but the point is that they get their ads into the app essentially on repeat.

That type of attention might seem like a good thing, but it's actually not. According to one study, consumers rebel against brands when confronted with too much advertising. Somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent said they would actively stop using a product or service that was being advertised in those situations.

That's bad news if you consider Toyota, Geico, Microsoft, and the few other advertisers that use the Watch ESPN app to be the first of a potential movement. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that results in failure for the campaigns. Only the boldest brands advertise, so, according to the study, consumers see only a couple of ads on repeat, which leads to them getting annoyed and ultimately giving up on the company.

Then again, there’s reason to be skeptical of the numbers from the study. It's easy enough to tell a surveyor that you plan to stop because of too much advertising, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do so. And, as we've already discussed, measuring advertising is difficult—"devilishly difficult to measure" is a phrase that comes up repeatedly in these discussions—so perhaps the advertising agencies will invent some metrics that report success.

As for me, I put up with the dumb ads every single freaking time they played because I wanted to watch the game. I suppose I could have muted them or walked away or something, but that seemed like a lot of effort. It was easier just to complain—and consider buying a Prius.