Local TV commercials get a bad rap. If advertising were a family at Thanksgiving dinner, local TV ads would be the crazy uncle. He’s loud, messy, and you spend the whole night trying to avoid eye contact.

But why are local commercials so easy to hate? I have a million answers to this and I’m working on a piece about why. But I’ll try to stay relevant here. I think it’s because local advertisers have forgotten their place in this whole game. Advertisers are the thing standing between viewers and what they really want to watch. If you’re going to interrupt someone’s entertainment, you’d better make it good.

Local ads tend to be direct response. Then they’re all bunched up into a group of businesses standing in line, awaiting their turn to throw the same disingenuous pitch at you, hoping enough repetition will eventually cause something to stick. I call this “yeah, me too” advertising. One business says, “Buy my product because it’s awesome,” and the other businesses just chime in with, “yeah, me too!” Processing what you see uses calories and your brain, in an attempt to save calories, does a great job tuning it out.

And therein lies a huge opportunity.

Accidental Surprise

We get jazzed by data around here. So, we did a test. We initially set out to test if a “high concept” commercial improved brand recall on a local level.

A “high-concept” commercial is what we call a commercial with a high amount of creative. Where a standard jewelry commercial may involve footage of a couple looking at jewelry under a voice over about the jeweler, a high-concept commercial may involve a deeper storyline with actors and high production value. Here is an example of a low budget high-concept commercial.

While crunching the data, we stumbled on something really interesting. When we inserted a high-concept commercial into a group of commercials, that ad’s attention metric not only went up — the others’ went down.

The Test

If you want to read more about the test in detail, sit tight — we’re writing it up. In summary, we showed a series of three everyday local commercials to 400 viewers. The control group consisted of a local car dealership, a personal injury law firm, and a jeweler. Three commercials were a “set.”

As a variant, we replaced the jewelry commercial with a “high concept” jewelry commercial that had a comical story line, a character-based host, and all the bells and whistles. We then asked 400 test subjects open-ended questions about what they remembered.

The results suggest that a commercial break is a little like Fight Club for ads. How well your commercial performs is affected by the other commercials “in the ring.”

Key Findings

The high-concept ads seemed to steal attention from the surrounding spots. Each commercial received an overall attention rating based on how much information viewers could recall, how many times each ad was mentioned, and how viewers described each ad in open-ended answers.


When all three commercials were even in creative and execution, attention was relatively even between all three commercials, ranging between 24–36%. Viewers did a predictably terrible job recalling the brands and even describing the products in the ads. Typical responses were, “It was a lawyer commercial about car accidents,” and, “A local Ford dealership with an athlete.”

However, when we swapped one of the commercials for a high-concept commercial, that commercial’s attention increased to 55–65% while the other two spots dropped to 4–6%. We found that viewers went into greater detail when describing the high-concept commercial and even describing how they felt when watching it. A typical response was, “‘The Driver’ was a character talking about a jewelry store. It was funny because he got out of the moving car at the end.” The other two commercials often received, “I don’t remember.”

We did not notice a significant increase in brand recall (a viewer’s ability to recall a brand from memory right after watching) between the high and low-concept ads, though there was a significant increase in brand recognition (a viewer’s ability to differentiate the brand from others) among the high-concept commercials.

How High is Too High?

Before you board a space shuttle and aim for the outer stratosphere of creativity, be warned. Unlike real life, where being in outer space is cool, the advertising universe’s outer space is filled with cheese. It’s thick, goopy, and littered with commercials-gone-wrong. That’s fine if you’re just vying for attention — but not good if you’re advertising by the metrics.

Think of a commercial as going to a party where the creative concept is your outfit. In slacks and a blazer you’ll blend right in, loser. In a beer helmet and a Speedo you’ll definitely stand out but you’ll likely be remembered for how many people ran for the door. Seriously, why do you have that much hair on your stomach and back?

Creating a high-concept commercial requires restraint. Think of a Super Bowl commercial you loved but you couldn’t remember what the product was. That’s an example of the creative overshadowing the product.

The Opportunity

We don’t need test results to tell us there’s an amazing opportunity here. Most businesses and way too many agencies are creating formulaic ads in default mode. They list as much stuff as they can ram into a :30 commercial which makes it even easier for a viewer’s brain to radically summarize and ignore it.

Imagine creating a commercial that absorbs the attention from other commercials like a super villain. The more boring the other commercials are, the more powerful your commercial becomes. And there you are, at the top of the city, with your maniacal laugh. Too much? Look, all you literally have to do is try a little.

The human brain is designed to recognize contrast. The thing that’s moving when everything else is standing still. The thing that’s a different color than the rest. It’s how we find food and how we sense danger. And if you’re playing the top-of-mind-awareness game, your biggest enemy is being invisible. That’s why it is better to be different than it is to be better. You often can’t quantify “better.”

Let this also serve as a warning that someone else who is trying just a bit harder is able to steal attention from your advertising. All they have to do is provide a bit more entertainment value and we’ve lost.

Changing Your Perspective

Look at it as a transaction where a viewer is giving you something extremely valuable: time. What are you giving them in return? Ask yourself the question, “What’s in it for my viewer?” If the answer is, “They get to learn about my products and services,” buckle up because you’re going to lose.

Remember that you are advertising in a time when being ignored is the default. Again, as marketers we have to remember our place. We are the thing standing between audiences and what they really want to watch. Those eye balls are extremely valuable and we have to use our time in front of them wisely.