(High School Insider)
Campbell Hall School

Opinion: TV Commercials make you happier than you think

“And now, time for a commercial break.” Groaning at hearing those dreaded words while watching A&E’s “Live Rescue,” I pull out my phone and play Geometry Dash to pass the time. The worst part about watching TV is the commercial breaks.

They interrupt the show, talk about products I am barely interested in, and simply waste time. 

“If we only had this on DVR, then I could skip these commercials,” I think to myself as the show finally returns after what feels like an hour.

When the pandemic began, I decided to take a class on Coursera called the Science of Well-Being, taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, as something to do in my spare time. The first few lessons of the course explored how material items, such as phones, cars, and even college acceptances only make us happy for a small amount of time, as we acclimate to them. However, going on vacations, and visiting new places will make us happier.

“It turns out that if you can force yourself to have an interruption in the good times, to stop it and then come back to it later, what you find is that you’re actually setting your reference point in a very positive way,” Santos said.

In an earlier lesson, she defined reference points with an example: in a race, the top three finishers get gold, silver and bronze medals. The person in first place has a gold medal, and is ecstatic. The person in second place has a silver medal, but their reference point is to that of the first place finisher; therefore they are not as happy, as they were close to winning gold. The person in third place is almost as happy as the first place finisher though; their reference point is to the second place finisher’s, and they almost did not get a medal at all. 

Santos posed the question, “Could it be the case that commercials, even really bad commercials, actually make us enjoy the program more?” Using a graph from a 2008 study conducted by Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis about the level of people’s happiness while listening to music, then interrupting it, shows a dramatic increase in the level of enjoyment once resumed. 

I have noticed this while watching television also. “The Office” on Netflix is one of my favorite shows, but after watching a couple of episodes I become restless, and my enjoyment of the show significantly drops. At some points, I find myself wondering “When is this episode going to end?” But with shows on live TV, I don’t think about that. Compared to watching “Spongebob Squarepants” on live TV, though I have seen every episode many times, I can always appreciate the episode after each commercial break.

Nelson, Meyvis, and Jeff Galak conducted a similar study in 2009 titled “Enhancing the Television-Viewing Experience through Commercial Interruptions,” this time using a sitcom, looking at the levels of people’s happiness when watching the show with interruptions versus without interruptions. The consumers who watched the show with interruptions enjoyed it more.

“What happens over time as you’re watching [the show], it’s just getting boring,” Santos said. “You’re used to it. You’ve been doing that. But when you have the commercials, and you come back from the commercial break, you get the sustained blip every single time the commercial comes back up, and it means your overall enjoyment is higher. What does this mean? It means you should be splitting the awesome things that you love most in life [with interruptions].”

The abstract of Nelson’s study reads “Although consumers do not foresee it, their enjoyment [of watching television] diminishes over time. Commercial interruptions can disrupt this adaptation process and restore the intensity of consumers’ enjoyment.”

The study theorizes that there are four main reasons as to why consumers choose to watch TV programs without interruption, including, the consumer’s failure to recognize that they acclimate to enjoyable experiences (and do not want interruptions), consumers do not appreciate and think negatively of the interruptions, commercials tend to be less engaging than the program, and these interruptions are not guaranteed to enhance the program.

The study overview reads, “commercial interruptions can actually make television programs more enjoyable, even though consumers strongly prefer to avoid commercials.”

However, age does play a role in determining if interruptions add to your experience. Nelson reports that as age increases, less adaption to a program occurs. He found that during one of his studies, participants age 35 and younger enjoyed the program with interruptions more, and participants age 36 and older enjoyed the program with less interruptions.

I will be continuing the Science of Well-Being over the next few weeks, but this is one piece of information that I found particularly interesting. I found it astonishing how commercials actually make watching TV more enjoyable, and we should savor the good experiences and break them up. It seems counterintuitive that something most people all dislike — commercials — are actually what makes us happy.