Skip to main content

Hitting the Mother Lode

In a secret, closed-door meeting last week, Procter & Gamble revealed Project Apollo, a code name for what some of the world's biggest advertisers consider the Holy Grail of media and marketing measurement. If it works, it may revolutionize the way advertisers think about TV.

The code name is a loose acronym for Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM), a new research system that simultaneously tracks radio and TV usage.

Here's how it works: Arbitron will equip 70,000 consumers next year with portable meters, a beeper-size device they carry that detects exposure to any medium capable of emitting an audio signal. Those same people would also use a VNU/ACNielsen HomeScan, a separate scanner device that tracks household purchases.

When the media data meets the purchasing data, it produces a mother lode of valuable information.

The hope is, Apollo will illustrate how, where and why ads work. If it delivers, it would signal a seismic shift in media planning. For example, instead of knowing how many men 25-54 watched ABC's Monday Night Football, Anheuser-Busch would know how many viewers of the game went out and bought Budweisers after seeing commercials.

“It's the biggest thing to hit media in 20 years,” says Erwin Ephron, principal of The Ephron Consultancy and the dean of modern media-planning theory. Ephron was one of the select few invited to the closed-door session. “The changes that would come from the Apollo system would be both real and profound,” he says. “It's a way of measuring media effects directly.”

“It's a huge development,” agrees Tony Jarvis, a member of the executive committee of the Advertising Research Foundation, which recently concluded that single-source data could more effectively measure the results of ad campaigns than conventional media ratings.

Still, Apollo doesn't come without strings.

The system would be expensive, a projected millions of dollars per customer. Although the price tag would make it less attractive to ad agencies, their clients may want to foot the bill. After all, the data has broader marketing implications beyond advertising. (While PPMs are used to track TV and radio usage, they have the capability to monitor anything with an audio track, including cinema ads and some retail displays.)

Unlike traditional media planning, which determines how many consumers a TV spot could reach, Apollo would tell advertisers how many people exposed to an ad bought their product. Yet Ephron has been among the most vocal critics of using PPMs as a media-ratings system. He believes PPMs would degrade TV ratings since they change the focus from an “opportunity to see” to a “probability to hear” an ad.

He's not alone in his worries. Broadcasters, especially the big radio companies, and Nielsen Media Research have one overriding concern: PPMs may not accurately measure exposure to media because it can mistakenly pick up audio signals from TV sets and radios that aren't being used by consumers, thereby skewing measurements.

Another big issue for marketers and ad agencies: PPMs effectively capture out-of-home exposure to TV programming, something Nielsen's current people meters and diaries don't do. That substantially boosted the relative share of TV outlets—particularly cable networks—in a series of tests conducted by Arbitron and Nielsen Media Research, which has an exclusive agreement to partner with Arbitron on the development of a PPM TV and radio ratings system in the U.S.

“There are still a lot of questions about the PPM,” says Rob Frydlewicz, vice president and director of research at Carat Insight. “The way it measures things, it could make TV look a little stronger, and it could make other media look a little less vital.”

But none of the reservations has slowed P&G's resolve, which is hungry for a system that goes beyond simple ratings to show how advertising exposure influences consumer buying decisions. Executives involved in the Apollo project say P&G is committed to the system and is reaching out to other marketers in an effort to get broad-based industry support. It may be inspired by BMM Canada's example. The nonprofit service, which provides radio and television ratings, converted to PPMs in September as the official TV-ratings currency for two of its largest markets, Toronto and Quebec.

“We already know advertising works,” says David Poltrack, executive vice president, research and planning, at CBS. “This could show us how other things influence the process.” He cites editorial content and how viewers react to ads—if they see it in their favorite shows or other shows—as key research tools. “There's a lot we can learn from this.”