No One Hears Commercials


(By Bob McCurdy) I referenced a study in last week’s blog that focused on radio’s audience retention during commercial breaks. We’ve all run into advertisers who claim that whenever a commercial break comes on, the listener immediately changes the station. This latest study’s results corroborate previous research on the subject.

Certainly some portion of listeners do tune away during a commercial break but this audience attrition is offset by those turning on the radio and listeners tuning in from other radio stations. Listeners are constantly “entering” and “exiting” a radio station the same way that commuters “board” and “exit” a subway at each stop. Some passengers get off and some passengers get on. This is true whether a station is is the midst of programming or in a commercial break.

First, let’s review two previous PPM studies that confirmed that the lead-in audience to a commercial break is largely the same throughout that break.

Arbitron, now Nielsen, Media Monitors and Coleman Research partnered on the first of these commercial retention studies, What Happens When The Spots Come On. The study looked at the audience of 93,876 unique commercial pods in Houston for the two month period of November and December 2005. Minute-by-minute audience data was matched to minute-by-minute commercial data provided by Media Monitors. It found that on average, radio held more than 92% of its lead-in audience during commercial breaks.

In 2011, an updated version of, What Happens When The Spots Come On, was once again conducted by Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Research. This study, much larger in scale than the original, analyzed 866 radio stations in all 48 PPM markets across 17,896,325 unique commercial breaks and came to a similar conclusion, that on average, radio delivers more than 93% of its lead-in audience during commercial breaks.

It also found that Spoken Word formats  delivered practically the same audience during commercials breaks compared to the lead-in audience (99%) and music format delivered 88% of their lead-in audience during commercial breaks, a far higher number than commonly believed. While retention differed by commercial pod length, the study also found that longer commercial breaks deliver nearly 90% of its lead-in audience, a particularly pertinent fact today.

Fast forward to last month to an article that appeared in the Journal of Advertising Research. Unlike the two studies referenced above, both of which were based on U.S. radio listening data, the following study was based on Canadian radio listening data. The results are confidently  projectable to the U.S. due to the homogeneity between the U.S. and Canada and the fact that all three studies used similar PPM methodology. The article titled, A Benchmark For Mechanical Avoidance Of Radio Advertising: Why Radio Is A Sound Investment. “Mechanical” was defined as physical avoidance of a commercial, i.e. turning off the radio, switching stations, etc.

The study results were based upon 800 panel members. The minute-by-minute data was sampled across one year from 17 commercial stations from October 2015- July 2016. More specifically, the analysis spanned over 2.9 million programming minutes and 841,003 separate commercials.

The authors concluded:

-Overall, radio has a low level of mechanical advertising avoidance.

-Music stations have a slightly higher rate of radio advertising avoidance than talk stations.

-Out-of-home listening has a slightly higher rate of radio avoidance than in-home.

-The main finding that mechanical avoidance of radio advertising was a low 3% on average,  meaning radio retained 97% of its lead-in audience. Combined with radio’s persistent high reach, the study suggests that radio is a high quality medium, retaining much of its audience during commercial breaks.

Whether the actual audience retention number is 92%, 93%, or 97%, any of the three are outstanding.

Note, do not let the dates of the studies take anything away from the results or discussing them, as while the micro manner in which listeners listen, i.e. station choice and the time spent listening might fluctuate over the years, the macro manner, i.e. tuning in and out of commercial breaks does not.

Compare these stats to what a Council of Research Excellence Nielsen NeuroScience study titled, The Mind Of A TV Viewer, conducted in March 2017 discovered regarding TV: 21% of viewers are out of the room during a commercial break, 40% of the viewers eyes were on a second screen with only 39% of viewers having eyes on the TV screen.

It’s a powerful story for radio.

If anyone would like a copy of all three studies, just email me.

Bob McCurdy is now retired and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Or the creative services people could produce better commercials. These need not be elaborate productions. One example is the spot series for Orthene Ant Stop Fire Ant Killer, which aired throughout the South, where fire ants have long been a plague. These spots consist simply of an announcer reading the copy while seeming to derive a sadistic pleasure from killing the ants. People have actually called radio stations REQUESTING these spots! Another spot is a local one that aired in the Shore area of New Jersey for the Windmill Drive-In, a local chain of fast food restaurants whose flagship outlet looks like a Dutch windmill. This was a jingle spot that was very catchy and listeners used to call stations to request it. I know…I was working for one of those stations when this happened. On the other hand, those obnoxious screamer car dealer ads are certain to cause listeners to turn the dial. People will listen to a good commercial and tune out a bad one.

  2. Ahhh…the cume train analogy. Remember that from my training 27 years ago. Thanks Bob for all that you have done for this industry and continue to do-

    Hope you are well

    Jason W

  3. Besides all that pertinent information just Bob-supplied, there is another dynamic that even most radio operators would find too fantastic to consider and only worthy of sneers and condemnation.
    Never mind short or long-term retention of spots by an audience.
    The dynamic that has always been in constant play is that: Recall is NOT required for the generation of buying behaviours.
    The key, of course, is in the power and influence of the spots themselves – a very “iffy” proposition or assumption.
    Still, the influence, to some degree, is ongoing.
    This represents another situation where radio didn’t get good – it got lucky.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here