What Happens When You Fumble With Your Phone During the Ad Break

We simulated the experience of watching TV with the phone on by creating an experimental two-screen player.

We simulated the experience of watching TV with the phone on by creating an experimental two-screen player.


We measured the effect of concurrent media usage on ad effectiveness with an experiment that simulated the experience of watching TV while being distracted by a smartphone.

One important finding:  ads that invite viewers to engage with a smartphone right away – Shazam it! Scan this QR code! – are ruining it for the next ad in the pod.


When people are in front of the TV, they don’t just watch TV.

The pioneering Middletown Media Study conducted in the pre-iPhone and pre-iPad era of 2005 showed that, at the time, 28.5% of 240.9 daily TV viewing minutes were accompanied by exposure to at least one other medium. (Talking on the phone and texting were the most frequent sources of interruption). In addition, about half of all TV minutes were accompanied by non-media life activities, such as caring for others, eating and cleaning.

The competition for TV viewer’s attention has hardly subsided. Since the study, smartphone penetration in the US soared from 3.8% in 2006 to 44% by the end of 2011. Today, for many tablet and smartphone owners (45% and 41%, respectively) using their mobile device while watching TV is a daily activity.

For any advertiser, these numbers lead to a natural question: What happens to my TV ads?

Having failed to locate a ready answer, we decided to find out for ourselves. We partnered with SecondScreen Networks, a company that sells mobile ads synchronized to what’s playing on the TV, to set up an experiment. Our formal objective was to understand the effect of advertising on a secondary screen during concurrent content consumption of television and mobile content.


What we did
To simulate the effect of watching a TV with the mobile phone on, we created a video player that showed two concurrent video streams to a group of 600 online survey respondents divided into three groups.

The stream in the “TV” window consisted of an SNL skit broken up by a sequence of four trailers for upcoming movies, among them a trailer for Friends with Kids. The stream in the “mobile” window showed screenshots from a smartphone every 5- or 10-seconds. Among the screenshots was an ad for Friends and Kids.

two-screen setup.png

We tested three simulated scenarios:
A) people watching TV without a phone in hand,
B) people watching TV with a phone in hand, and
C) people watching TV with a phone in hand and the phone displays an ad for Friends with Kids at the same time the trailer is on.

Each participant was shown a version of the player from one of the three scenarios, selected randomly.

We then asked them a series of questions testing what they remembered and how much they liked Friends with Kids.


What we found out

1. Ad recall goes down. Concurrent consumption of mobile and TV content strongly and negatively affected recall and preference rates of TV advertising. Respondents in the one-screen condition group exhibited on average 17% higher recall of the Friends with Kids trailer and 12% higher preference than the two-screen groups on average.

In other words,  viewers get distracted when they fiddled with their phones while watching TV; they are less likely to remember or like the ad than when the TV is the only medium.


2. Ads on the phone boost preference rates. Displaying a mobile ad for at the same time as the TV ad did not lead to a significant increase of recall rates for the TV ad but it did bring the preference rates back to par with the one-screen condition (it increased preference by 15%).

In other words, when we put an ad on the mobile phone people were looking at, their recall of the TV ad was still lower compared to the no-phone-at-all scenario, but their preference rates went back almost all the way up. The “mobile ads” in our experiment helped fight the problem that mobile phones had created in the first place.


If confirmed, these findings could mean a couple of things.

One is that TV advertisers will be looking for ways to compensate for the drop in TV ad effectiveness caused by TV-mobile multitasking either by dialing up frequency or by putting up two-screen roadblocks with the help of companies such as SecondScreen Networks.

Secondly, ads that invite viewers to engage with a smartphone right away – shazam it! scan this QR code! – are ruining it for the next ad in the pod. The playing field of a commercial break is already uneven: an emotionally impactful ad will carry viewer’s thought way beyond the allotted 30 seconds. By getting people to fumble with their smartphones, an ad essentially makes viewers tune the TV out for the duration of the exercise.

People who run to the bathroom during the commercial break often can still hear the ad. People who change the channel can at least be counted. Tuning out is the silent killer.