One of the most frequent questions we get from our clients is whether to advertise in HD (high definition) or SD (standard definition). What’s interesting is that most people outside of the industry would not consider this to be a debatable topic. Why would any advertiser go with an outdated format to do that advertising? As easy as that question appears to be to answer, the fact is there seems to be an reverse time warp when it comes to direct response TV advertising. Whether it’s due to the cost to produce an HDTV ad, or the possibility that those that produce direct response ads may be late adopters of HD technology, research clearly shows that direct response advertisers typically utilize HD 17% less often than other verticals.
I have spent a fair amount of time perusing clinical research centers’ websites and social media channels, and my experience confirms these statistics. Most patient recruitment TV ads that I have found are standard definition. And each time I see an SD ad, I can’t help but feel that they are leaving something on the table. They are missing out on an opportunity to deliver a clearer message, a better representation of their brand, and ultimately better response. I think this reverse timewarp still has some producers or advertisers stuck in the mindset that HD is still new and a novelty, when, in fact, that is not the case.
Consider these statistics about HDTV versus SDTV:
- (SD) Standard definition TV sets have not been manufactured since 2008.
- 81% of homes have an HD TV set.
- 74% of all TV ads are in HD (as of Q3, 2015, according to Extreme Reach).
In addition, there is also research that shows that HDTV ads help to increase the ‘intent to purchase’, have 3x higher ‘ad recall’ compared to SD ads, and have 41% fewer ‘tune-aways’ (number of viewers who change the channel).
Why Do HD Television Ads Perform Better Than SD Ads?
Why would that be? Viewers are quickly able to spot the difference between an HD ad and an SD ad. SD ads are designed to be viewed on an SDTV. Surveys show 76% of viewers said they could spot content shown on HD channels, but not produced in HD. The most discerning viewers seem to be men between the ages of 18-55. When you consider that most viewers are watching these ads on an HDTV, this is where the problems come in. An SD ad never displays properly on an HDTV, due to differing resolutions and screen sizes. For instance, HD ads are designed for a wide screen format (16×9 aspect ratio), where SD ads are set up in a square format (4×3 aspect ratio). This alone will affect how the ad appears on an HDTV. Usually, TV stations will expand your SD ad to fill the frame vertically, but your 4×3 aspect ratio leaves large black areas on the sides of your ad. On top of that, some TV’s may stretch the image horizontally so it fills the entire screen, which results in an extremely distorted image.
Next is the issue of image quality. An SD ad on an HD TV can appear blurry or choppy, depending on the TV set that it’s being viewed on. This is a result of the difference in pixels. A pixel is a point of colored light that makes up the overall image displayed on the screen. For SDTV, there are 480 rows of pixels from top to bottom with 640 or 704 columns of pixels from left to right. For HDTV, there are a minimum of 1080 pixels top to bottom and 1920 left to right. Quite a difference. And those HD dimensions are the minimum. Many TVs have thousands more pixels in each direction, with Ultra HD having 16 times more than the current SD standards. If you’ve ever tried to enlarge a photo and noticed the distortion that occurs, then you can understand what happens to a 704×480 image that is stretch to 1920×1080. It’s the same concept.
Producing your ad in HD format also gives you an advantage when using the internet to promote your clinical trial. The 16×9 widescreen aspect ratio is the default for online videos. If your ad is produced in HD format, it is ready to air online via YouTube, Facebook, or on your website, and still be in it’s natural dimensions.
How viewer perception changes with SD advertising
We already know that viewers can tell the difference. They can tell when an SD ad was used if they are viewing it on an HDTV. What kind of underlying message does this send to viewers? If your audience can tell that you’re using an outdated format for advertising, is it possible that they might think you are cutting corners in other aspects of your business? At the very least using outdated technology does not put you on the same level playing fields as an established, premium brand. It can create apprehension in the eyes of the viewer, especially in an industry where you need to establish trust and reliability to convert your viewers to participants.
Where do broadcasters stand on the HD vs SD debate?
Now that we know that the viewers do notice, what about the networks? 82% of major networks and 70% of national cable networks consider HD to be the broadcasting standard. There are some stations that may require an SD “down convert” with your HD ad, but those are the exception, not the norm. It is also the broadcasting standard across all internet channels.
Interestingly enough, the statistics shared are for US viewers and advertisers. Canada seems to be ahead of us in this, with nearly all Canadian TV media now utilizing HD and Canadian advertisers running more ads in HD than U.S. Advertisers. 
Advertising in HD will give you more results for your advertising dollar and help your business stand out in a positive way. HD ads simply work better than SD ads, and that is why without a doubt we always recommend to our clients to produce and distribute their TV ads in HD.
 Video Advertising Trends Report, Q3, 2014, Extreme Reach
 Leichtman Research Group: http://leichtmanresearch.com/press/031315release.html, March 13, 2015
 Starcom and Discovery Networks Study
 Kantar Media Set-top Box Analysis