America seems to lead the world in TV advertisements

June 22, 2018

I belong to a couple of online groups that cater to people who, like me, have left Britain and settled here, in the United States. They are just social groups where people discuss news from the old country, tell each other where they can get British food that they might be missing, pass on tips for the cheapest flights to take a vacation back in Europe and things like that. They also chat about aspects of American life that surprise, intrigue, amuse or confuse them and one of the subjects that seem to come up for discussion quite frequently is TV ads.

I guess you could say with regard to ads that the British have been spoiled in the past. In the early years of television the BBC was the only provider over the other side of the Atlantic, and it was always funded via a television license fee. Any household with one or more TVs has to buy a license at a cost of around $200 a year, although they are free for seniors over 75 and registered blind people. As a result of this there are no ads shown on BBC television.

The British have commercial channels of course, and these do show ads because they get no part of the license fee, but the advertising policy over there is very different to ours. Here in America if you are watching an hour long show you will see forty-two minutes of the show and 18 minutes of ads.

This means if you binge-watch TV for 10 hours you will be subjected to three hours of advertisements. This is double the amount of time that was allotted to ads here in 1960 and, what’s more, the ads we see today tend to be different. Back in the ’50s and ’60s the average TV ad lasted for around a minute, these days many ads last only 15 seconds, so you get to see far more of them.

You may wonder how this compares to Britain. Well, over there TV broadcasting is regulated by a government office called Offcom and their regulations allow for an average of only seven minutes of advertising per hour, with a maximum in any one hour of 12 minutes. Thus if you get 12 minutes of advertising this hour you should only get two minutes during the next one. This policy leads to less disruption of programs but it does create problems when American shows are broadcast in Britain. An hour long American show only lasts 42 minutes, leaving 18 minutes to fill, but the station can only show an average of seven minutes of ads so they tend to fill the gaps with news of coming shows etc.

The frequency of ads over here is surprising, too. In Britain they allow one commercial break for each 30 minutes of program. I looked for guidance as to how frequently they can show breaks over here but couldn’t find anything; although, from experience, it seems to me the breaks are far more frequent and sometimes come at strange times. Do any of you really want to watch a show or a movie only go to a commercial break two minutes from the end?

Among the ads that always get people from Britain commenting are the numerous ones for prescription drugs. These are the ones that usually finish with something along the lines of “Ask your doctor if blah, blah is right for you.” This sort of ad is called ‘direct to consumer’ advertising and it’s not allowed in Britain. In fact, it’s not allowed in most of the world; only the USA and New Zealand permit it.

We British haven’t seen any ads for prescription drugs until we come here so they tend to fascinate us but what surprises us most is the long list of possible side effects the FDA requires the pharmaceutical companies to include in their ads. Detailing some of these lists takes as long as the part of the ad promoting the particular drug and, if there ever came a time when I needed this type of medication, I think listening to the list would put me off asking for it. Despite this the statistics tell us these ads do work and drugs advertised in this way enjoy better sales than others that are not advertised.

This is not that surprising when you realize the average American sees around nine drug ads per day, that’s about 16 hours a year spent watching them, far longer than most of us spend with our primary care physician each year.

So, how do other countries in Europe tackle TV advertising? Well, Germany also has a TV license fee and they have ads as well but only for 20 minutes per day and not after 8 p.m. France allows up to 9 minutes an hour but only allows one commercial break for each hour while Greece has ads not exceeding 4 minutes in every 20 minutes. Ads are limited to no more than of 15 percent of the day.

Russia breaks its ads into two parts, Federal and local. Federal ads are restricted to 4 minutes per hour while the local ones can take 15 minutes. Denmark, Norway and Poland all have license fees but allow restricted ads.

It seems the United States is the most liberal country in the world as far as TV advertising is concerned. Only New Zealand comes close, with up to four commercial breaks in an hour, totaling 14 minutes. They do, however, have ad free days on Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, together with no ads before noon on Sundays. Maybe this policy is something we should think of adopting over here.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.