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AOL: Marketing the Nielsens

Survey says: AOL members spend less time watching TV than average. AOL implies they're logging on instead. Analysts say that's not necessarily so.

America Online (AOL), still smarting from a week of negative publicity, today hoped for a positive spin: It released a study stating that AOL members spend nearly 15 percent less time watching television than the average Joe.

Which just might lead one to conclude that AOL members are logging online rather than tuning into the boob tube.

But the study, paid for by AOL and conducted by Nielsen Media Research, doesn't say that.

In fact, it reveals no cause-and-effect relationship at all. It just shows that people who have Nielsen boxes on their sets and also have signed up for AOL watch less television--not that they're logging online instead.

AOL called the study "groundbreaking."

But Doug Powell, who helps media companies plan how they're going to advertise for Foote, Cone & Belding, called it a "sales ploy" relaying information that advertisers have known for years.

"People who are computer users tend to be very light television users," he said. "That's a given. They're proving things we already know--that people who are online typically are lighter viewers of TV."

The study "hasn't given me any insight that I didn't know already."

Even Paul Linstrom, vice president of Nielsen, acknowledged that Nielsen might have reached the same conclusions had it polled its Nielsen members who also happened to be Lexus owners because wealthier, more educated people tend to watch less television.

"It is not a study designed to show whether or not AOL is a substitute for television," Linstrom said. Instead, the study concludes that AOL subscribers see television advertising less often and need to be reached in other ways; through AOL, for example, Linstrom said.

That's why Bob Pittman, CEO of AOL Networks, states in a press release that the study "underscores AOL's unique advantage compared to television and offers more evidence that the mass market is embracing the Internet and online."

Linstrom said, "What's happening here is we're saying, here's AOL and they have a way that they can potentially deliver [advertising to] a previously undelivered audience. It gives a very solid reason to say, hey maybe this should be looked at and evaluated as part of any national media buy."

But Powell said all the results of the study--which he had not seen--simply indicate that advertisers "should consider other vehicles," not necessarily AOL or anything else. "To me," he added, "it seems like a sales ploy more than anything. It hasn't given me any insight that I didn't already know."