The Elusive Advertising Clutter
You probably used it at least once. I know I did. Only today, I realized I had no idea where this number was coming from.
Complaints about advertising clutter date back at least as far as 1759, when Samuel Johnson wrote, "Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic."
So, apparently the clutter problem isn't new and it's not getting any better, but why 5,000? Whether this number is even plausible will be the topic of another post. The problem at hand is that the number by now has acquired a status of an urban myth -- whoever talks about it references "a study" or "an analyst", and its reliability varies from it being "an estimate" to a self-evident fact. Yet, after a few diligent hours, I couldn't find any methodology or a specific source behind whatever studies had arrived at the conclusion. What I found, though, is that the 5,000 number had mutated into all sorts of weird shapes.
So, where does it come from? Here's what I got so far.
NY Times, 1988: "Studies show that the typical consumer is bombarded by 5,000 advertising messages a day."
Journal of Advertising Research, 1998: "Americans are exposed to over 500 commercial messages a day (Bovee and Arens, 1995)." Apparently, the author is referring to this old textbook. This number doesn't seem to be a typo; another researcher on the same quest quotes a subsequent 1999 edition of the text book estimating the range to be within 500-1,000 messages.
The only solid but not very helpful number is in this press release from 2000: "Jupiter forecasts that by 2005, consumers will be exposed to 950 impressions online per usage day, more than doubling from 440 impressions in 1999."
In 2004, J. Walker Smith, the CEO of the research company Yankelovich Partners, gave a speech to ANA in which he described the findings of a recent study his company had just finished. This February 2004 study measured people's attitudes towards advertising and how it had changed since the last similar probe in 1961 (it had worsened, predictably). Here's a write-up on ClickZ (2004) and a pdf of the press release (April 15, 2004) that outlines the core findings.
Neither the ClickZ article nor the press release say anything about ad clutter measurements being the focus of the study. The press release is full of all kinds of gloomy numbers, but while Smith does address the ad clutter problem, he offers no specifics.
Now check out these press quotes that would reference the study in the years to follow.
Inc.com in 2005: "On average, Americans are subject to some 3,000 essentially random pitches per day. Two-thirds of people surveyed in a Yankelovich Partners study said they feel "constantly bombarded" by ads, and 59% said the ads they see have little or no relevance to them."
On the other hand, Philip Kotler wrote the same year, "The average American is exposed to several hundred ad messages a day and is trying to tune out." (Kellogg, 2005)
USA Today, 2006: "The average 1970s city dweller was exposed to 500 to 2,000 ad messages a day, [J.Walker] Smith says. Now, it's 3,000 to 5,000." Same quote on CBS News.
Magazine Engagement, 2006: "All this means that the average person now sees over 3,000 advertising messages a day."
Another NY Times story, in 2007, again quotes Yankelovich: "Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today."
From there, the meme starts its journey through the blogosphere.
Buzz Builder blog, 2007, quotes the NY Times story that quotes Yankelovich: "The story mentions a recent Yankelovich study which estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with 5,000 today."
Branding Communications blog, 2007: "Twenty-five years ago it was estimated that people were getting exposed to 1,500 messages per day. Now it's estimated that this number is approximately 3000-4000 per day." Also, "Message clutter could reach 5,000 per day by 2010."
Other, undated sources:
Wensmedia (cached, undated): "Consumers are exposed to more than 3,600 advertising messages a day, including everything from packaging to signage, and from radio to billboards."
Road Runner Ads, undated: "The average American is exposed to an astonishing 700 advertising messages per day."
Canada Post, undated: "Canadian consumers are inundated with hundreds of advertising messages each day through a variety of media."
Respond 2 Creative, undated: "Consider the facts. The average consumer is exposed to over 13,000 marketing messages per day."
Business Encyclopedia on Answers.com, undated: "Advertising has so permeated everyday life that individuals can expect to be exposed to more than 1,200 different messages each day."
Unnamed, undated: "One estimate holds that the typical person sees 2,700 advertising messages a day."
So far, I have three leads: Yankelovich, the Contemporary Advertising (Bovee and Arens) text book, and David Shenk's Data Smog. Updates will be posted as they come.