Deeper Dive—Will AT&T and Hulu’s 'pause ads' get our attention?

Will users accept or revolt against "pause ads?" (Dennis Skley/Flickr)

Content costs money to make and subscription fees don’t cover everything. That’s why services like Hulu still rely on advertising. But as consumers get increasingly accustomed to the Netflix model, finding ways to serve ads without alienating viewers is getting trickier.

Recently, both AT&T and Hulu made news with plans to begin playing advertisements when viewers pause the video they’re streaming. Matt Van Houten, vice president of product at Xandr Media, told Variety that marketers and distributors have a prime opportunity within those breaks since they can guarantee 100% viewability when viewers pause and unpause the action.

Of course, this type of ad placement isn’t without potential friction. Longform ads and commercials that aren’t relevant to the typical behavior during a commercial break would likely be met with skepticism if not downright hostility by viewers.

But advertisements that play when the user pauses streaming video don’t seem entirely unnatural.

The traditional commercial breaks within linear television over time became a signal to viewers that it was time to get up and grab a snack, use the restroom, check the dryer or accomplish any other quick chore that needed doing. Now, via streaming on-demand and live content, viewers can hit pause to create those quick breaks whenever they want. So, pause ads would be a way of reverse engineering that old relationship by waiting until the viewer deems a break necessary and then having advertisers take care of some quick business during the hiatus.

Will “pause ads” catch our attention? Rob Silvershein, an advertising analyst with The Diffusion Group, said that they won’t unless they meet the criteria of being relevant, authentic, contextual, and engaging. But he went deeper than that in explaining how pause ads could gain consumer acceptance and how they could impact the market.

TDG says that environment matters as much as context and that the act of pausing suggests a viewer is taking a break from their screens, not gearing up to watch an ad.

“Hitting pause while streaming means that I want to take a short break and leave to do something else, thus the odds of the message getting through to me are remote at best,” Silvershein wrote in a blog post.

Even with the right criteria in place for successful pause ads, TDG said acceptance will still take time, just like it did for traditional television. Once again, the ad-free Netflix experience that so many are accustomed to doesn’t make it any easier to slip ads into the mix. As Tim Hanlon, CEO of Vertere Group, told Variety, it will be important to let viewers know that ads are still needed to fund the operation even with subscription fees coming in.

Silvershein echoed those sentiments.

“Companies like AT&T and Hulu realize they require additional revenue streams in order to provide competitive quality content. The best solution is for these companies is to have an honest dialogue with their customers, in order to come up with the proper mix of revenue streams to be successful. Regardless of outcome, pause ads at best will be a very small part of the mix.”