Fluffing the Numbers

Mark Sakalosky

Updated · Mar 04, 2003

Over the past four weeks, some better-known online news sites successfully deployed a strategy to drive down the average age of their users. The effort hinged on creating and delivering content targeted to younger Web users, those who typically avoid serious news sites like the plague. The new content ranged from private photos of Britney Spears to profanity-laden clips from “The Osbournes” to voyeuristic shots of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in an apartment on Central Park.

News sites buried this tabloid content deep within their sites. Regular visitors were completely unaware the content even existed. That same content, however, was promoted heavily through banner placements and pop-up ads on Web sites trafficked by younger surfers. When those users clicked on the ads, they arrived deep within the news sites, landing directly on the journalistically challenged content.

In drawing these younger users, news sites could dramatically manipulate their average user’s demographic profile. In all cases, sites achieved their goal of attracting a high number of users in the 18 to 24 bracket most coveted by advertisers. No one from these sites were willing to go on record, but one executive, requesting anonymity, confirmed the plot. “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. It’s a tough market right now, and we’ll do whatever it takes to meet our budgets. By manipulating the profile of our current users, and more specifically by bringing in younger users, we were able to lure in advertisers that shunned us in the past. That means more money in our pockets, which means we’ll do it again in the future if necessary.”

None of the Above Is True

None of what you just read is true. It sounded ridiculous, didn’t it? The whole thought of manipulating the demographic profile of the average visitor by creating and promoting unique content to draw in a younger audience is ludicrous. Advertisers would never fall for such a ploy, would they?

Ever heard of television sweeps?

Television sweeps are ridiculous periods occurring four times each year. Networks pull all the stops to attract more viewers, especially those advertisers covet. Sweeps are why we were introduced to Joe Millionaire. Sweeps are the reason we were offered new episodes of “Friends” and “The West Wing.” Sweeps are the reason we got to see the gradual transformation of Michael Jackson into… well, I don’t know what he’s transforming into.

It’s during sweeps that TV networks measure their audiences, in terms of size and demographics, then use this data to set ad rates for the next three months. By creating circus-like programming and promoting it like side-show barkers, networks manipulate audience statistics to their benefit. The data are used to sell advertising at higher rates. Of course, once sweeps end, programming reverts to the mundane. Four nights of “Dateline,” three nights of “20/20,” and rerun after countless rerun.

Allen Banks, executive media director at Saatchi & Saatchi North America recently told the New Yorker, “Because the networks and the local stations are so savvy at hyping the ratings, sweeps are a sham, a subterfuge. The picture they give you is anything but typical of what’s going on the rest of the year.”

Even the company responsible for measuring audience data admits the sweeps system is flawed. Jack Loftus, VP of research at Nielsen Media Research, was quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article as saying, “Is it bizarre? Of course. But that’s the nature of the business.”

The networks don’t even try to hide the dirty little secrets of sweeps anymore. In the same Journal article, David Sloan, executive producer of “20/20,” referring to the way ABC packaged and presented the Michael Jackson documentary to inflate ratings, said, “It’s a very, very effective trick of the trade.”

Everyone knows the system is flawed. The networks admit they’re guilty of fluffing the data. The reliable, objective third party entrusted with measuring the data admits the data is fluffed. And media buyers admit data collected during sweeps isn’t applicable to traditional television programming windows. But they continue to spend ad dollars based on the fluffed sweeps data.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Everyone agrees the system is broken. Nevertheless, last year during the upfront advertising sales period alone, advertisers spent a record $8 billion buying time on broadcast networks. Mel Karmazin, venerable COO of Viacom, the owner of CBS, was quoted in AdAge last week saying he expects that number to go even higher this year.

Interactive advertising can provide not only accurate customer demographic information but also actions customers take in response to that advertising. So why do media buyers still invest huge sums of client money in the clearly flawed broadcast TV advertising model? Shouldn’t buyers shift some of those dollars into interactive advertising?

If media buyers don’t shift these budgets on their own, shouldn’t marketing executives hold their agencies more accountable? Shouldn’t they demand their money be invested in more measurable, reliable interactive advertising vehicles?

If the interactive advertising community could collectively demonstrate the advantages of Internet over broadcast to those who hold the ad budget purse strings, perhaps this industry would break into another extended period of hypergrowth. How does 10 percent of the upfront TV broadcast take sound? That would generate an incremental $800 million into the interactive advertising market. And that’s just for starters. Advertisers would know they were actually getting their money’s worth.

Wait a minute — I need to be careful what I wish for. If TV sweeps became obsolete, I would never get to see “Jane Millionaire” or “When Felines Attack!”

On second thought, never mind.

More Posts By Mark Sakalosky