Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Le Commercial Interruptus


Commercial Interruptus
By Tim Manners

A pair of research studies finds that we enjoy television programs more when they include commercial interruptions, reports Benedict Carey in the New York Times (3/3/09). This is true even when the commercials suck, according to Leif Nelson, an assistant marketing professor at the University of California, San Diego. "When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent." But in some ways, it's not unlike the way "people eat chocolate bars in pieces, waiting and savoring."

In one study, two groups of students watch episodes of the old sitcom, Taxi -- one group watches with commercials and the other without. The group watching with commercials rated the show more enjoyable than did the commercial-free group. A followup study, "using other video clips and a variety of interruptions" produced similar results. The phenomenon did not hold up "for irritating experiences, like listening to vacuum cleaner noise; a break only made it seem worse, they found." Apparently, irritating television programs weren't tested.

Lief's explanation is that even enjoyable experiences quickly become routine, and the commercial breaks renew one's enjoyment. Wharton's Gal Zauberman meanwhile suggests that "people are not fully aware of what makes them happy, especially when there's a temporal component, when one experience affects another in time." However, as Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of "The How of Happiness," explains: "If you adapt so quickly to pleasurable activities, and the pleasure decreases, how do you sustain a level of happiness or ever move up on the scale?" It's simple: You watch the commercials.



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