Natalie Haynes: TV adverts may be irritating, but they're darned useful too

The thing is...

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The thing is that if you want to watch a TV drama the old-fashioned way – as it goes out on television, rather than online – you will find yourself plagued by adverts, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

Unless you are disproportionately interested in a new sofa, or perfume, or frozen roast potatoes, it would be easy to become quite wearied by them.

The Chinese evidently feel the same way, as their government is outlawing adverts during TV dramas, starting in January. Which just goes to prove that even if you live in a Communist state, you have had to deal with being flogged quasi-festal tat during Downton Abbey. There is truly no escape. Interestingly, the Chinese decision appears to have been made on artistic rather than commercial grounds.

Last month, the state issued limits on the amount of reality programming that could be shown, and now drama-interrupting adverts face the chop to "improve the level of public cultural services, and protect people's basic cultural rights". If you're starting to think that China sounds like the perfect place to turn on and tune in, it's worth bearing in mind that our attitude to TV ads is deeply confused.

A huge majority of us claim to hate TV advertising: read the comments under any review of programmes that go out on commercial television, and the moaning about it is rivalled only by attempts to dodge it. We watch stuff on Sky+ or online, just to avoid the unending hard sell. We are especially vexed when the ads break the flow of a programme – exactly the thing the Chinese are about to ban.

But, at the same time, huge numbers of us seek out adverts like never before. Three million people have watched the John Lewis Christmas ad on YouTube, since it was released a couple of weeks ago. And that, in turn, is dwarfed by the Volkswagen ad with the kid being Darth Vader – so far watched almost 45 million times.

And, while we're being grouchy about ads, we're forgetting how much television that we value relies on them. When junk food advertising was pulled from children's programmes, the programmes didn't continue getting made funded by adverts for wheat-free, low-sugar snacks. They just stopped being made at all.

Even those who eschew commercial TV for a highbrow night at the theatre are depending on TV ads for their enjoyment: you'd struggle to find a theatre actor who doesn't do the occasional voice-over to supplement the terrible money theatre usually pays: they're in a job with a 90 per cent unemployment rate at any one time, and they have bills to pay, too.

So let's embrace the TV ads, even when they render the plot of a Poirot unintelligible. Without them, when would we make the tea?

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