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How Many Ads Do We See a Day? The Battle for Our Attention

In my last blog post, I discussed the value of personal data. I’ll return to that topic in a week or two’s time. Here, I’ll take a detailed look at the boundless and diverse world of advertising.

The Advertising Explosion

In 2006, Jay Walker-Smith, President of the marketing firm, Yankelovich, claimed that the average American was exposed to 5,000 ads per day, ten times as many as in the 1970s. According to Red Crow Marketing Inc., the current figure is somewhere in the range of 4,000 – 10,000.

At first glance, those figures seem to be a wild overestimate. But wait a minute, you were just exposed to two ads in the above paragraph and you probably never noticed. They were brand placement ads born of my need to declare my data sources.

Most of the ads you encounter in your typical day are of that ilk. Consider supermarkets’ shelves, for example. Supermarkets carry up to 46,000 products (according to the Food Marketing Institute) as a stroll through the supermarket is probably good for more than 1,000 brand exposures.

Let’s do some math. If we assume 4,000 ad exposures per day and a 16 hour day, then on average we will be exposed to an ad every 15 seconds. So half an hour in the supermarket could get you more than a quarter of your ad exposures for the day.

The Full Gamut of Ad Channels

Gotta catch ’em all:

  1. TV. The TV is ubiquitous: at home, in the restaurant or bar, at the airport, on the airplane, and sometimes, even in the back of a cab. Cable TV broadcasts ads roughly 25% of the time, with a batting average of 48 ads per hour (according to MediaPost). To that, you can add the product placements in TV shows, or if you are watching sports, the virtual ads that overlay the TV images.

  2. Radio. Expect to experience 20 ads an hour.

  3. Billboards. There are somewhere between a half a million and three-quarters of a million billboards distributed out across America — although there’s none in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont, where the law has banished them.

  4. Retail. Almost every shop window is an ad of a kind, and signage abounds. You can also throw display ads onto this category — in bars, at bus stops, at train stations, in buses, on trains, or in the metro.

  5. At the cinema. The time the cinema says the movie starts is the time the 15–20 minutes of movie ads start, exposing you to about 70 annoying ads that are immune to a fast-forward button — and also movie trailers you might enjoy.

  6. In the mail. About 48% of US mail is junk mail according to the USPS, giving an average of 848 pieces per household per annum, or 2.32 per day. Some of that junk mail is, of course, catalogs awash with ads.

  7. Newspapers and magazines. You expect to see ads (and inserts) in newspapers and magazines. It’s been that way since Pontius was a Pilate, whether it’s American Angler or The New York Times. You’ll even find ads in Spiderman comics.

  8. On PCs and laptops. With PCs, the main source of ads is email (and almost every other messaging app). Unsolicited junk email is roughly 90% of the total, although email filters can be more than 99% efficient so it’s not hard to keep under control. Of course, the web is awash with ads, display ads, pop-ups, ads on videos, and so on. Google estimates that roughly two-thirds of people’s searches are for products or services. Those are self-solicited although the rest are probably unwelcome. The use of ad blockers is prevalent and growing. It is currently estimated at about 40% of US PC users. One ad-blocking business, Bad Ad Johnny, estimates that the average internet user encounters 11,250 ads per month or 375 per day. About a third of those are likely to be encountered on social media.

  9. On mobile devices. Smartphones furnish you the same collection of ads as the PC when you surf the web, but they also include apps with ads (pay for the app or we’ll plague you with ads), apps that are ads, and ads that know your location. They also enable spam telephone calls, as do landlines.

  10. In video games. There are product placement ads in video games — of course, there are.

  11. And everything else. So far, I’ve failed to mention planes towing ads through the sky, vehicles painted with adverts, wearable technology, ads on faxes (yes, they still exist), brands on your clothes and digital devices, messages on T-shirts, advertorial writing, and last but not least, shills and bots in chat rooms.

Did I miss anything?

Yes, I did. My bad. I failed to mention tattoo ads — renting out your skin — which was a thing about 10 years ago. The most successful walking talking billboards earned $220,000 or more, but sadly there was a scarcity of volunteer skin.

A Disturbance in the Force

There is a battle for human attention. Attention is a finite resource and advertisers can only capture so much of it. Red Crow Marketing Inc. estimates that the average person will only notice about 100 ads a day. If we experience 4,000 ads per day and absorb just 100, clearly 97.5% are wasted.

But 100 per day is not the figure we should be interested in. The figure that should interest us is the number of times per day that we seek the information an ad can provide, which is far lower.

Very few of the advertising channels listed above are permission-based — in the sense that you opt-in to receive the ads, rather than get interrupted by them. And that’s where the problem lies — and partly why we at are pursuing a permission-based business model. The more aggressive the ads become, the more effort people expend in blocking them.

They throw junk mail away without opening it, tune out the radio ads, install email filters and ad blockers, record TV programs to fast forward past the ads, and so on.

There is something very wrong with this.

Effective permission-based networks like QVC on TV, Craigslist or Yelp on the web, or Groupon on mobile phones can and do exist — and they prosper. Permission-based ads work. And it should not be surprising.

Advertising is a natural aspect of consumption. Shoppers like to window shop, consumers like choice, and advertising opens up a door to the possibilities. We shouldn’t feel the urge to slam that door shut.


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