Agency Leadership Advertising Media

My ad diary: Are impressions meaningless?

By Subin Kim, Director of Creative Strategy



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December 5, 2023 | 7 min read

In a special miniseries, we’ve tasked ad execs to really pay attention to the ads they see in just one day. Today, Subin Kim of The Fifth notices the gulf between impression and impact.

A house of cards

When we really pay attention to ads, do we start to realize that impressions are a meaningless metric? / Sigmund via Unsplash

One Monday not long ago, I tried to observe and jot down every single ad that I came across throughout my day.

This is not a common practice among marketers (or anyone for that matter), despite being the ones responsible for putting ads out into the world, so when asked if I would be interested in participating in this exercise, I gladly obliged.

While I had anticipated that I’d see fewer ads working from home than on a day where I’d commute to work, I was surprised by the sheer disparity between the reported statistics of daily ad exposure and the number I ultimately ended up with.

Even prior to the experiment, the widely cited figure of 5,000 ads a day seemed like a wild overreach - my guess was that it would be anywhere from 100 to 150 ads.

The actual count would prove to be even lower than that.

A day in the ad-consuming life of a 30-something strategy director in LA (9/18/2023)

7:30: I woke up and headed downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee. While the pot was brewing, I checked my phone and scrolled through Instagram. I was immediately hit with a barrage of ads from Blindfold Wines (wine), Cos (clothing/retail), and Walgreens (pharmacy/drugstore). On Reddit: display ads from Samsung (electronics) and the US Marines. Scrolling through an email newsletter, I noticed a sponsored post from Masterworks (art investment). With coffee in tow, I made my way upstairs to start my workday.

9:05: A quick break to check Reddit. In a 3-minute span, I was exposed to 4 ads – Postmates (food delivery), Peacock (streaming), Butterball (deli meat), and Kingsford (charcoal). I quickly browsed LinkedIn and saw an ad for Schneider Electric. Shortly after, I swiped through Instagram stories – an ad for Photoshop. Break over, back to work.

11:40: On the drive to Chipotle for lunch, an ad for USAA (insurance) while listening to a podcast. As I pulled into the parking lot, OOH ads for The Exorcist (film) and Crunchyroll (streaming) at a nearby bus stop. Back home to eat my burrito and watch YouTube: a pre-roll ad for Manscaped (grooming).

12:35: Checking emails. An ad for Contentful (CMS) in another industry newsletter.

1:12: A Top View ad for Adidas as soon as I logged onto TikTok.

1:57: On Reddit, a Mintmobile (phone) display ad in the feed.

5:15: Before leaving for the gym, another quick scroll on Instagram. An ad for Bodega (clothing).

5:30 to 10:30: Working out, going for a run, making dinner, and washing up for bed. Within that span I don’t recall seeing any ads (though I admit I was probably too preoccupied to notice either way).

11:00: Ended my day scrolling through Instagram and came across ads from Capital One (banking), Basquiat Exhibit (museum), Hollywood Bowl (venue), LA Philharmonic (concert), Chance the Rapper (concert).

Total documented ads: 26.

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The illusion of impressions

The exercise provided an illuminating insight into an average person’s daily ad exposure (particularly on social media), and it made me reevaluate the true impact and effectiveness of impression-based advertising.

Sure, over the course of the day, I only documented 26 total advertisements. But in reality, I was probably ‘exposed’ to at least three or four times that number – which begs the question: what is the actual value of an impression if the viewer doesn't consciously acknowledge it? Even if an ad is “viewed”, does it hold any significance – especially if it fails to leave a lasting imprint on the viewer’s memory?

As we dig deeper, it becomes increasingly evident that metrics like impressions and views may not be as meaningful as they are often perceived.

Studies have shown that while individuals are exposed to far more advertising than they consciously recognize, it does not necessarily translate to higher recall. This suggests that there are diminishing returns to an overexposure of ads. In other words, hitting a high impression count doesn’t mean an ad campaign was successful. Maybe, then, cost per action (CPA), ad recall, brand affinity, and engagement metrics (i.e. likes/comments/shares) are far more effective indicators of an ad’s impact on its target audience.

This experience has further proven to me that we as marketers should be emphasizing the importance of the context and content of an advertisement over the volume of its delivery.

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