Commercials Consume Lives

If you had 2000 hours, would you…
watch ¼ million
commercials for
banks, investments & insurance
earn $40,000
doing your regular job
watch ¼ million
commercials for
pills & potions
play soccer
every Wednesday evening
watch ¼ million
commercials for
cars & trucks
qualify as an
auto mechanic
watch ¼ million
commercials for
cleaners & fresheners
write five books


You'll see so many television commercials in your life that if you cancelled your cable and watched commercial-free streaming instead, you'd save enough time to earn $40,000, qualify as an auto mechanic, play soccer every Wednesday evening, write five books, and much else besides

It seems incredible that television commercials could steal so much of your life, but if you do the math, that's what you'll find. The average hour-long TV show is 36% commercials. Let's be generous and assume that you don't see half these commercials, because you leave the room, channel hop or fast-forward on TiVo. If you're a typical American, you'll watch around 5 hours of television a day, which adds up to 140,000 hours over a lifetime. So the number of hours you spend watching commercials is ½ × 36% × 140,000 = 25,000 hours, more or less (see the Sources box to the right for details of the calculation and sources).

Figures for what proportion of television commercials are for financial, automotive, pharmaceutical and household products are difficult to come by, given my reluctance to pay a sizeable fee to a market research company. However, a rough-and-ready survey of the television commercials I have been forced to watch lately suggested that each of these four big categories accounts for about 10% of commercials (the other 60% are for cosmetics, telecoms, electronics, foods, drinks, restaurants, supermarkets, hardware stores, movies, games, political candidates, government propaganda, charities, online dating and countless other categories). To be really conservative, I took these proportions to be 8% rather than 10%, and calculated that the number of hours you'll spend watching television commercials in each of the financial, automotive, pharmaceutical and household categories to be 8% × 25,000 = 2000 hours.

One argument I have heard in favour of advertising is that it keeps us informed of new products. The numbers show this argument to be nonsense. It takes a few minutes to scan the supermarket shelves to decide which household products to buy, and you'll review your decisions maybe once a year if you really want to keep up to date with the latest cleaners and fresheners. Compare this with watching 2000 hours of television commercials for household products in your lifetime, and it's clear that whatever advertising is, it is not information.

Another argument I have heard is that people like advertising, which can be clever, funny and visually appealing. Car and truck commercials certainly have high production values. But again, the numbers show the absurdity of this argument: would you rather watch 2000 hours of car and truck commercials, or the top 1000 movies of all time? (You might think that movies cost more than commercials, but consider how much you pay your cable company to bombard you with advertising, compare it with, say, a subscription to a decent commercial-free streaming service, and you'll find that there's not so much difference.) By the time you get to movie number 1000, the production values may have slipped a little, but I guarantee that the movies will be more entertaining that the commercials, and a lot less repetitive.

So the choice is yours. Spend 25,000 hours watching television commercials, or do something else with your life.


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See If Advertising Were Abolished… for a comparison of life with and without advertising

More advertising made thinkable

More commerce made thinkable

Latest things made thinkable


The Nielsen Company – NTI Annual Averages – Time Spent Viewing: Persons – via TVB – in 2009, men watched nearly five hours (4:54) of television per day, women over five hours (5:31), teens and children a little less (3:26 and 3:31)

For the purposes of these calculations, I have assumed life expectancies of 84 for men and 88 for women, taken as an approximation for people in mid-life now, and taken children to mean 0-12 years and teenagers to mean 13-19 years

So an average lifetime's television is (3:31 × 13 × 365¼) + (3:26 × 7 × 365¼) + average((4:54 × 58 × 365¼), (5:31 × 62 × 365¼)) = 140,000 hours, near enough

Marketing Charts – Average Hour-Long TV Show is 36% Commercials – including in-show brand appearances

Kantar Media – Top 25 Local Broadcast TV Categories – Jan-Sep 2010 – via TVB – includes both local and national spot activity in the 101 markets measured by Kantar Media – these figures are for spot TV only, so are somewhat skewed (e.g. financial and pharmaceutical commercials are underrepresented), but give some idea of which categories are big

United States Department of Labor – Bureau of Labor Statistics – Household Data Annual Averages – Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers – median weekly earnings of full-time wage or salary worker in US is $747 – so annual earnings are $747 × 52 = $40,000, near enough

Career Overview – Auto Mechanic CareersDepending how often you attend class each week, programs can provide intense training for anywhere from 6 months to a year – an intensive one-year course, 40 hours per week for 50 weeks, adds up to 2000 hours


First published 13 April 2011

other pages on things made thinkable

How many people for every panda?   If Advertising Were Abolished…   How We Die PART I
How many people for every panda?   If Advertising Were Abolished…   How We Die PART I
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