James Cridland

Advertising and the British

Why do the British, especially, seem to have an issue with advertising?

In comparison with the US, you’ll notice that many UK podcasters don’t do too much advertising. A typical UK website has fewer flashy banners on it. In fact, there seem to be fewer ads everywhere.

It’s often claimed that Brits are less tolerant to advertising than Americans. If the amount of advertising in daily life is anything to go by, there’s some truth in that.

Here’s why.

In the UK, 50% of all radio station listening, and 20% of TV viewing, has no commercial messages at all on it. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

You won’t hear a sponsorship message, nor any “underwriting credit”: instead, you’ll have absolutely no commercial messages there at all.

These channels are run by the BBC, who carry no advertising in the UK at all (it’s paid-for by a mandatory annual fee on television sets, and program sales overseas).

If your only exposure to the BBC is their news on PBS, their pedestrian BBC World News channel, or perhaps nature documentaries like Planet Earth, it might surprise you to know that they run wildly popular top40, alternative and HotAC radio stations in the UK, as well as ten TV channels with popular entertainment programming.

This has knock-on effects for commercial broadcasters, too.

Commercial TV is restricted in terms of how many ads they can show. Often you’ll see no commercials at all between programs, as they “bank” the ad spots for mid-show, which can be sold at higher rates.

Commercial radio also used, until relatively recently, to be restricted to 9 minutes of ads an hour (US radio can be double that). The BBC also had an effective monopoly on some form of radio programming (especially classical music and most forms of talk radio), so there are many people who might never have heard a radio commercial until a few years ago.

In the UK, it is entirely possible to watch TV, or listen to the radio, and not hear a single commercial message at all.

The UK public is much less likely, therefore, to tolerate intrusive advertising: because, it turns out, to many British, any advertising is intrusive: and it’s something drilled in by tradition. As a boy, I grew up being allowed to watch BBC children’s programming, but was not allowed to watch the commercial TV equivalent. I’m not alone: and it meant our parents didn’t have us pestering them about new toys (though did mean I never saw an episode of Tiswas.)

Anyway, as a result, many UK websites and other media outlets carry significantly fewer advertising opportunities than North America.

There’s something worse than “advertising” to a Brit, though, and that’s “irrelevant advertising”.

Blue Apron, Rocket Mortgage or Casper mattresses do not operate in the UK, yet podcasts are peppered with ads for them. They are, by their very nature, entirely irrelevant to a British listener. It therefore follows that podcasters who don’t geo-target their ads are actively training non-US listeners to ignore them. This is perhaps not the best plan for the future.

Is the UK a special case?

How does public service broadcasting in the UK compare with other English-language markets?

Canada’s CBC contains advertising on television, and limited advertising on radio. Ireland’s RTÉ also carries advertising on both.

In New Zealand, TVNZ is almost entirely commercially funded. Radio New Zealand’s two channels are commercial-free, but (with one classical station and one talk channel) mainly consumed by an older demographic.

In Australia, the ABC doesn’t carry advertising: but only has around a 20% share of radio listening, and low figures for its TV output, too. It is, perhaps, the closest media market to the UK, but given the ABC’s figures are much weaker, it’s unlikely to have as much of an impact. Meanwhile, Australian commercial television has among the highest commercial minutage in the world.

The UK is a bewildering place for North Americans: the same language, but very different people. The unique British experience with advertising might be one of the stranger parts of the country’s psyche.