Samuel D Bradley & Timothy C Laubacher. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
According to the trade publication Advertising Age, $149 billion was spent on measured media advertising in the United States in 2007. That’s approximately $500 for every woman, man, and child in the country. Ultimately, that cost must be passed along to the consumer. The price you pay for every advertised product you buy includes money for advertising. Obviously, someone feels that this paid persuasion is important. This begs the questions “Why is advertising necessary?” “Why do advertisers pay so much to persuade us?”
One advertising executive estimates that you will come in contact with 1,500 brands on an average day and almost 35,000 if you visit the grocery store (Roberts, 2005). Every one of those brands clamors for your attention and money, and you do not have enough of either to go around. Instead, you must be persuaded to use a particular brand. Yet here again is a logjam. Every one of those brands wants to persuade you, and if you are like most people, you have grown up in an advertising-saturated society and have learned to tune out those 1,500 to 35,000 voices. Only effective advertising can break through the clamor, and effective advertising begins with effective research.
The Spectrum of Advertising Research
Advertising research is performed by various agencies and research specialists in numerous ways. Some agencies may tend to use quantitative research methods, while others may specialize in qualitative research. Certain agencies make research the foundation for brand development and advertising campaign decision making, whereas others undertake research only when absolutely necessary, relying instead on instinct alone. Research is useful for understanding the target audience, the competitive marketplace, and the actual advertisement more thoroughly so that the client has the best chances of success. If advertising is shooting an arrow at a target, then research shines a light on the target, providing the best chances of hitting the bull’s-eye.
Advertising research is often focused on involving consumers in the process of developing advertising. Giving the consumer a voice in the process of creating advertising results in more accurate brand strategies and positioning; copy and imagery with which consumers can identify; and an overall better understanding of the lifestyles, hobbies, motivations, and attitudes of target audiences. Unfortunately, an account planner, brand strategist, or research specialist cannot simply ask “What advertisement would you like to see so that you will buy the product?” This is an exaggeration, but in many instances consumers are put in the position of being marketers, which they are not. The saying that “there are no stupid questions” does not necessarily hold true in advertising research. To get the best answers, the right questions must be asked of the appropriate people in the correct ways.
In Search of Advertising Effectiveness
Perhaps the most oft-repeated cliché in advertising is the former merchant and postmaster general John Wanamaker’s statement, “I know I’m wasting half my ad dollars. I just don’t know which half.” Almost 100 years later, much of advertising research is dedicated to determining “which half.”
Definitions of advertising vary, but advertising is generally agreed to be the art and science of paid persuasion to a large audience. For both the practitioner and the academician, the science side of advertising reveals itself more easily. It is straightforward, for example, to determine the percentage of consumers who can freely recall your brand name when asked to name a brand in your product category. Likewise, extensive research has developed models of persuasion that specify the conditions wherein a message is likely to be most effective (e.g., McGuire, 1972; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). However, testing a particular combination of layout and font proves to be more difficult. Similarly, it is difficult to ascertain when a particular popular-culture reference will be embraced by the consumer. The 1984 Super Bowl advertisement launching the Apple Macintosh computer is one of the most successful in history; however, it relied almost exclusively on a play on the title of George Orwell’s book 1984. Had the audience failed to grasp that link, the ad likely would have failed.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of advertising is that so few consumers believe that it works. Ask almost any consumer, and that consumer will tell you that he or she drinks Diet Coke because it tastes better and washes clothing with Tide because it cleans better. Blind comparisons, however, often show the folly of this illusion. A trip to the nearest supermarket is revealing as consumers readily pass over inexpensive store brands for the pricier brand names—even in product categories where performance cannot be distinguished when the labels are stripped away. Just as readers should not judge a book by its cover, so too, should consumers not judge a product by its label. Yet judge they do. And often they judge labels favorably and willingly hand over hard-earned dollars for the privilege of taking that label home.
An entire branch of academic research, known as the third-person effect, has developed to account for this tendency to believe that media messages (in this case, advertising) affect others but not “me” (Davison, 1983). How does one go about researching a phenomenon whose effects are so persistently denied by those affected? If half of Wanamaker’s advertising dollars were wasted, likely far more than half of advertising research dollars were wasted. Indeed, when asked by the advertising student or inquiring practitioner, we must admit that we have made precious little progress in six decades of trying to provide a systematic answer to Harold Lasswell’s (1948) question, “Who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effects?” (p. 37).
Advertising and Culture
At some level, advertising is an (applied) art form. As much as our paintings and poems can tell us about an era, so too, can advertising. For example, ads that once moved millions to buy now come across as sexist, racist, and crass. Advertising can capture an entire era: Just as people readily buy “Route 66” signs today, that bygone age also is captured by the Burma Shave signs that once lined American roadways with a series of rhyming catchy sayings: “Hardly a driver,” “Is now alive,” “Who passed,” “On hills,” “At 75,” “Burma-Shave.”
The link between advertising and culture should not be underestimated. Many large advertisers and consumer products corporations keep close tabs on the culture. DDB Worldwide, of Chicago, maintains an annual survey of American consumers known as the “Life Style” survey. Rather than asking what kind of pasta a consumer prefers, this data set includes questions about how often Americans attend club meetings, how much they value freedom of speech, and even how often respondents “gave ‘the finger’ to someone while driving my car.”
At first, these kinds of questions may seem to have nothing to do with advertising. But surveys such as this one allow advertisers to understand popular culture and the themes that permeate consumers’ lives. Not surprisingly, culturally oriented DDB launched the SignBank program in 2005 (Creamer, 2005). This program comprises small “signs” in popular culture, and everyone at the agency was expected to contribute, from receptionists to executives. The signs range from comments about Weblogs to customized sneakers, and together form a database that DDB account teams can use to understand consumers. One observation about the attire of a passerby likely will tell you nothing, but in the aggregate, hundreds of similar observations can shed light on the public mind-set.
This is not merely an esoteric exercise. In the current information age, genuine differences between competing products are short-lived as technology allows competitors to copy or improve on any differences that give competitive advantages. In this landscape, the brand is king. And brands are fundamentally psychological enterprises—that is, they live in consumers’ minds. What Snickers, for example, represents is less about peanuts, caramel, and nougat and more about the perceptions of 300,000,000 people and their thoughts about the brand. Is there any evidence that Snickers may stave off hunger better than a PayDay or any other candy bar? Likely, the answer is no. However, the “Snickers Satisfies” concept is so well ingrained among consumers that it is their default choice, which easily makes it the sales leader. A Snickers is not just a candy bar. It is part of the fabric of our culture. And that’s not a status that consumers readily confer. Instead, a brand must be carefully constructed through a series of long-term advertising (and increasingly, public relations) campaigns. The message must be right, and it must be consistent. To find the right messages takes great research and a little luck—but rarely just luck.
A brand does not actually belong to the business that created it. A brand exists in the minds of the people who are aware of the brand. Essentially, it does not matter if an executive says that his or her company’s brand is caring, compassionate, and lighthearted. If the consumers find the brand to be arrogant and indifferent to their needs, then that is the brand. Executives at PepsiCo could not simply will Mountain Dew to be “edgier” than traditional soft drinks. Instead, decades of well-designed advertisements have carefully crafted that image. Advertising agencies and public relations firms can make intensive efforts to manipulate how the brand is perceived by the target audiences, but it is up to the consumers to internalize that image and identify with the brand.
That being said, a fundamental goal of advertising research is to learn what the client’s brand represents. This is the brand personality. Rohit Bhargava (2008) defines personality as follows: “Personality is the unique, authentic, and talkable soul of your brand that people can get passionate about” (p. 6). One way to think about the importance of brand personality is to think of any brand as having both attributes and personality traits. The attributes are tangible brand offerings, whereas the personality aspects are more emotion based (e.g., hilarious, mature, and relaxed). The attributes generally define the category the brand exists in, whereas the personality components differentiate the brand from its competitors within the category. For example, both McDonald’s and Burger King have attributes such as burgers, fries, and fast service. Although there might be small variations in their attributes (e.g., Burger King’s flame-broiled patties), the real brand differentiation occurs in their personalities. Conducting research to understand a brand’s personality gives advertising agencies a mentality with which to plan campaigns and a voice with which to write advertising copy. It also helps advertising agencies steer clear of injecting messages into the market that are inconsistent with the brand’s personality.
Conducting research with the client’s own employees can be beneficial to developing a brand personality. For instance, much of the Starbucks atmosphere centers on interactions with the barista (the coffee server). If the baristas do not embody the personality of Starbucks, then the advertising is likely doomed.
Loyalty Beyond Reason
Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of the advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi, has extended brand identity into what he calls lovemarks (Roberts, 2005). Rather than trademarks or service marks, Roberts argues that lovemarks elicit loyalty beyond reason from their consumers. Although it may seem even more ludicrous than the idea of brand identification, most of us do have brands we love. We’ll go thirsty if there’s no Diet Pepsi, or we’ll drive 5 miles out of the way to go to Target. Many Ohio State University sports fans will not even say the word Michigan. That’s love! But Roberts argues that there is another key dimension: respect. “The Lovemarks of this new century will be the brands and businesses that create genuine emotional connections with the communities and networks they live in. This means getting up close and personal” (p. 60). Respect is a two-way street. It begins with understanding. And understanding begins with research.
Recent research, including work by the authors of this chapter, has helped explain the intimate relationship that consumers have with advertised brands. Not only do consumers assign personalities to brands, they also identify with these brand personalities. The most vivid example of this has been Apple’s recent campaign with the “I’m a Mac” and “I’m a PC” advertisements. Through careful advertising over the years, Apple cultivated the image of a trendy user, which they featured in the advertising; the fact that no one had trouble understanding the metaphor attests to the degree with which people identify with the ads. In a recent study (Bradley, Maxian, Laubacher, & Baker, 2007), we asked participants about some of the most popular brands in the world. Their responses were telling: The more a brand was “loved” or “good,” the more it was “like me.” The relationship was almost perfect: In no case was a loved brand not like the consumer.
Although this seems to make sense on the surface, take a moment to ponder the absolute absurdity of the comparison. In exactly which way, dear consumer, are you “like” a Snickers bar or a Pepsi? Are you small and brown? Are you full of bubbles and caramel coloring? Of course not. Candy bars, soft drinks, beer, and laundry detergents are products to which advertisers have assigned personalities. And this assignment is neither inexpensive nor easy; it is not simple to make people fall in love with a brand. To create the kind of relationship that Snickers has with consumers around the world, you need to understand your product, you need to understand your consumer, you need to understand your competition, and you need to understand the culture. This understanding does not come from intuition alone; it comes from careful, comprehensive research.
Perhaps the greatest advertising limitation is its expense. There are more than 6.6 billion people in the world, and it costs money to get a message in front of them. Then add the obstacle that sales messages are everywhere, and most consumers will fail to even notice your message the first time. It costs a lot more money to get your message in front of the world several times. Since advertisers cannot afford this, it becomes crucial to pay to get your message only in front of the appropriate audience—namely, those most likely to buy your product. If your product is expensive, you want to advertise only to those who can afford it. If your product is bought by women, you will not advertise in men’s magazines. If you’re selling diapers, you want to advertise only to parents with young babies. These key consumers are your target market, so named because you target your advertising to them. One of the earliest stages of advertising research comes with identifying the proper target market.
The foundation for successful advertising is having a detailed understanding of the target audience or audiences. Whom, among the billions of people on the planet or the hundreds of millions of people in the United States, will you target? The process of dividing the population into meaningful chunks is known as segmentation, through which you literally segment the population based on a host of variables. Although the most talked-about audience descriptors are demographic data (e.g., gender, age, household income, and education level), fathoming a market segment goes much deeper. Research can be aimed at learning the target consumers’ habits, hobbies, information sources, entertainment preferences, product and service preferences, and purchase behaviors. The reason gaining a detailed audience description is a common research goal is that with this information, an advertiser has better knowledge of how a brand fits in consumers’ lives and where, when, and how the consumers are most susceptible to persuasion.
To segment the audience in a meaningful way, you must understand who uses the product or service and why. In some instances, demographic data will suffice. Fixodent denture adhesive likely relies on age segmentation, and Just for Men hair coloring obviously uses gender but includes age segmentation, too. Toro snow blowers likely segment the population geographically. These cases are clear. But who buys Hallmark cards or Apple Macintosh computers? Those consumers likely have more in common behaviorally and psychologically than demographically.
When one is looking to advertise to current consumers, segmentation is usually relatively easy. Companies often keep data on their customers and can share these data with the advertising agency. Then it is simply a matter of looking for commonalities among the current customers. If you want to expand the current market, however, it is much more difficult. Of all the people who currently do not buy your product or service, which ones are the most likely to be converted? In this case, it is advantageous to connect with current noncustomers to learn why they do not buy your product. Focus groups, surveys, and in-depth interviews can provide valuable insight. Even then, however, meaningful segments and targets may not be clear. In these cases—especially when the budget allows—it is helpful to turn to proprietary segments constructed by marketing research firms. For example, Claritas offers the PRIZM market segmentation system, which divides people into dozens of categories, such as the Cosmopolitans, Gray Power, and Shotguns & Pickups (Belch & Belch, 2007, p. 51). For any given zip code, Claritas can tell you which groups are most common. SRI Consulting Business Intelligence also offers a segmentation tool, called VALS (http://www.sric-bi.com/VALS/help.shtml#1), that primarily categorizes consumers in terms of their degree of innovation and their financial resources. The value of these tools is the ability to identify what the company’s customers have in common and then find more people like them.
Getting the Message Across
Once the audience is segmented and certain segments have been selected as the target, there is still much research to do. Although the target markets have been identified, advertisers must decide how to reach this audience. The process of researching where to deliver a message is known as media planning and is covered in Chapter 89 of this volume. Because of the in-depth nature of that chapter, we will not discuss media planning here except to say that current trends in media fragmentation and narrowcasting (i.e., targeting your message to a small and selective group) make media planning more challenging, more interesting, and more creative than ever.
When a message reaches those outside its target market, this is known as waste coverage. Proper segmentation and targeting, combined with accurate and creative media planning, can minimize waste and maximize the value of advertising. It should be noted that in many small and mid-sized advertising agencies, media planning is synonymous with advertising research. That is, many of the things discussed in this chapter are not among the repertoire of too many small firms. In these agencies, segmenting and targeting occur during the selection of media. Once the media are selected, the research is complete, and the advertisements are written.
Crafting the Message
Now it’s time to write the actual advertisements. To many people, message creation is the stage where science steps aside and art takes over. Obviously, this must be the case to some extent; however, effective research is as important at this stage as any other, particularly in determining the kind of image the ad should aim to construct.
In addition to portraying the correct image, a copywriter must understand the goal of the campaign before putting pen to paper: What should the ad accomplish? This might, at first, seem obvious. Advertising is supposed to sell, right? After all, one of the aphorisms of advertising is “It’s not creative unless it sells.” However, one cannot always move consumers directly to the cash register. In the case of new products, consumers have never even heard the name before. It is naïve to think that a single 30-second advertising message will be sufficient to drive the consumer off the couch and to the point of purchase just to try your never-before-heard-of product. Instead, initial advertisements may aim only to make the public aware of the brand.
For example, although it is difficult to diagnose a campaign from afar, the recent series of Super Bowl ads by the Web site registry http://GoDaddy.com appears to have been designed to create awareness. These sex-laden ads likely garnered attention when they first appeared. Only in subsequent years did the ads attempt to actively draw consumers to the Web site. The 2008 Super Bowl ad featured the race-car driver Danica Patrick partially undressing and encouraged participants to visit the Web site to see more “exposure.” The Web-based ad was a sophomoric joke, and Patrick did not undress. According to USA TODAY’s AdMeter results, the ad was not especially well liked (http://www.usatoday.com/money/advertising/admeter/2008-02-04-results-chart_N.htm). However, the media widely reported that the ad drew millions of viewers to the company’s Web site. It is likely that this traffic was increased due to the brand awareness created a year earlier. Had the initial ad targeted Web traffic, viewers unaware of the brand may have been more reticent about visiting the site.
If the primary goal of a campaign is to generate sales (rather than awareness), then learning about the thought processes that lead to the purchase of a business’s products or services is essential. For example, when advertising for a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, it may be important to know whether its customers think initially about the category of food they are hungry for (e.g., Mexican, Italian, or deli sandwiches) before narrowing their dining options down to a sit-down, fast-casual, or quick-service restaurant. Do the customers decide what they want to eat early in the morning at work and look forward to the meal until lunch or dinner, or do they make the decision while driving and discussing restaurants with a friend? If your target market first decides food type and then picks a level of formality, then you need to sell fast-casual more than just Mexican. Conversely, if the consumer decides on the price first, then your pitch needs to concentrate on Mexican food. Understanding the purchase decision-making process is a logical and attainable goal for advertising research.
The last part of Lasswell’s question is ultimately the most important: “With what effects?” If advertising does not ultimately sell, then the company will go out of business. You may need to generate awareness first, but sales are ultimately essential. With direct-response advertising, almost no research is needed to assess advertising effectiveness. When a Life Alert commercial comes on television, there is a toll-free number displayed at the bottom of the advertisement for almost the entire duration of the ad. If you want to buy, you pick up the phone and call. Within a few minutes of the ad’s appearance, the advertiser will know whether it was a success as the majority of calls will come immediately after the ad. For most other products and services, however, the effects of advertising are not so readily determined.
What makes you stop at Taco Bell on the way home or buy a package of Oreo cookies? You have to be hungry, and the product has to be available. In the case of Oreos, the package has to be in the right place on the shelf for you to even see it. When you have the motivation and the opportunity to purchase a product, then some feeling deep inside you has to make you select Oreos from among the dozens and dozens of other cookie brands. Any given advertisement may make you hungry for Oreos now, but it also might contribute, ever so slightly, to the probability that you become a loyal Oreos customer for the next 30 years. This latter possibility is not easy to measure.
This difficulty in determining an ad’s effects does not give advertising agencies a free pass. They must be held accountable for their degree of success. However, chasing immediate short-term success almost guarantees that you will never achieve long-term success. Instead, effective advertising research must take into account quantitative sales data plus more complex variables such as public opinion. A commonly measured advertising variable in this type of advertising research is unaided brand recall. This information is helpful in measuring the effectiveness of an advertising campaign designed to increase awareness. Following the campaign—sometimes as soon as a day after an ad runs, a telephone survey asks consumers to name a brand of cookie, for example. The proportion of people who mention Oreos can be ascertained both before and after the campaign. Although sales might not immediately increase, an increase in top-of-mind awareness suggests that the campaign was effective in achieving its goals. Awareness does not necessarily translate directly to sales, so this type of campaign would, it is hoped, be part of a larger strategy.
Quantifying Brand Awareness
Because advertising is often attempting to get a brand noticed, a useful research goal is gauging brand awareness. Selected markets’ increases or decreases in awareness of a brand can be used as a measurement of return on advertising investment. Investigating brand awareness should also involve the measurement of competitors’ brand awareness. This allows for a relative understanding of how well-known a brand is in chosen marketplaces compared with its competition. Knowledge of brand awareness helps with planning for more targeted campaigns by indicating awareness gaps geographically and also indicating successes and failures in previous marketing efforts.
The Source of the Message
Those involved in advertising research seldom have much input as to the original source of the message; decisions such as brand name and even company name are usually marketing functions and are already decided before it is time to advertise. However, for an individual advertisement or campaign, advertising research can help determine the appropriate spokesperson or spokescharacter. The former founder of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas, and Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, Colonel Sanders, often appeared in advertisements, and a cartoon likeness of the Southern gentleman pitched buckets of chicken even after his death.
Different message sources can be used to elicit feelings of humor, trust, expertise, and other desired outcomes. The inclusion of testimonials also allows advertisers to vary the source of their persuasive message. Advertising research can play a role in determining, retaining, or switching a spokesperson or a testimonial source.
Research can even help an advertising agency gain clients. When you show up at their door with original research examining their consumers and their current advertising, “there are few manufacturers whose curiosity is not piqued when you offer to show them the results of such a survey” (Ogilvy, 1963, p. 60). Research can be a successful new business tool for a number of reasons. The agency’s unprompted and unpaid investigation into a prospective client’s current situation shows a genuine passion to help them grow the brand. This also positions the agency as an expert rather than just another agency barging in without knowing the company’s consumers, competitive landscape, or current struggles and successes. Often, company decision makers grow impatient awaiting the results of research, so initiating the agency-client relationship with some form of research already completed gives the company the confidence that the agency is ready to hit the ground running.
Advertising Research Methods
Research should not be conducted simply because it seems like a smart idea to create a survey or host a focus group. All research should take place to fulfill specific goals. The results of the research should not be predetermined or assumed, but the aims of the research need to be clearly understood. The research goals will affect the types of participants involved and the methods used. Once the reasons for conducting advertising research are established, the following are some of the forms of research that can be employed.
Broadly speaking, advertising research is either pretest or posttest research. Research centered on campaign generation and development is considered pretest research. Research designed to measure advertising effectiveness is considered posttest research. As with so many dualities, this dichotomy is overly simple. For large brands, research is continuous, and data gathered after one campaign can be considered posttest for that campaign and pretest for the subsequent campaign. Posttest data often is diagnostic in nature; however, these data can also be used to help refine and improve market segmentation.
Advertising agencies survey current customers, potential customers, and company employees to measure brand perceptions, brand awareness, target audience attributes, and attitudes toward advertisements. A popular tool is the semantic differential that asks participants to choose a point between two adjective pairs. For example, the adjectives cool and uncool can be placed at either end of a scale separated by 9 points. The participants select the point that most closely relates to their opinion about the brand. The semantic differential can be used to measure the current state of a brand and its personality as well as testing the extent to which an advertisement fits the brand.
Consumers’ agreement is often measured using Likert-type scales. With this measure, participants are asked the degree to which they agree with a statement such as “This advertisement fits with my concept of the brand.” Participants are given several possible choices, such as strongly agree, agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, and so on. This form of question allows the researcher to suggest more complex scenarios to the participant.
To assess brand awareness, open-ended questions can help determine what brands research participants have heard of and purchased from prompted industries. For example, measuring brand awareness for an audiovisual products retailer might include surveying a sample of participants in a specific geographic region, and asking them to name all the stores they can think of that sell televisions or high-end audio equipment.
Measures of aided and unaided recall are typically gathered via telephone survey. These are open-ended questions usually intended to gauge brand or advertising awareness. Unaided recall (also called free recall) is the most sensitive measure; participants are asked questions such as “Can you recall seeing any advertisements on television last night?” Aided recall (sometimes called cued recall) is less sensitive and uses a prompt or cue. Thus, participants might be asked whether they saw a soft drink advertisement the night before. The least sensitive of such measures is recognition, for which participants might be asked whether they recognize hearing a particular slogan. In recognition tests, participants are often tested with genuine and fake slogans to ensure that they are not saying “Yes” simply to please the researcher.
The traditional use of paper surveys is still prevalent, but a promising recent development in survey research is online surveying. Once a survey is programmed, the URL can be sent to hundreds or thousands of participants in different markets across the country, and data can be available within days.
Focus Groups and In-Depth Interviews
For all the useful statistical significance of survey research data, they lack some of the ability to capture the emotion tied to a brand that focus groups and interviews can provide. Because so many purchase decisions are based on emotional responses and not simply logical decisions, talking directly to consumers is a popular form of advertising research. However, focus groups are widely understood by the general public, and this presents difficulties for focus-group moderators. They must keep the participants thinking and responding as themselves and not like advertisers. Although one-on-one in-depth interviews with consumers take more time, the quality of results can be outstanding.
To develop creative ideas for advertising a brand, the agency should strive to fully understand the brand experience. Unfortunately, unless agency employees were already customers of the company before the agency began advertising for them, it is difficult for employees to have an unbiased view. This is where mystery (or secret) shopping can be beneficial. Professional mystery shoppers participate in the brand experience by shopping and usually ultimately buying a product or service from the client company. The secret shoppers then report back to the advertising agency with information about the atmosphere, customer service, and other impressions of the experience.
One challenge for all researchers is to study a phenomenon without personally having an influence on the results. The questions posed through survey or focus group research certainly will affect the way the participants share information. A way around this risk of a distorting influence is to simply observe the consumers in their natural environments. This might entail watching and taking notes or even videotaping consumers as they move throughout a store making a serious of routine and spontaneous purchase decisions. For more information on this method, Paco Underhill’s (2000) Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping details the finer points of documenting and analyzing consumer shopping experiences.
Another place to monitor consumers is online. With the current popularity of online forums, blogs, and social networks, consumers are making a great amount of information publicly available. Agencies are wise to pay attention to how a brand is discussed, positively and negatively, online.
True experiments are relatively less common in industry-based advertising research, although they are quite common among academicians. One industry practice is to pit two versions of an ad against one another. Doing so is easier for print (or online) advertisements, where each consumer can be assumed to see only one issue. Often called an A-B split, ad version A goes in half of the newspapers or magazines, and version B goes in the other half. This is especially effective in direct-response advertising, for which sales can be quite closely tracked. The analytic power of Web advertisements makes this methodology especially simple. Click-throughs are easily measured, and the relative effectiveness of multiple versions of a banner ad, for example, can easily and quickly be compared. Weaker versions of an ad can quickly be pulled from rotation.
Quasi-Experimental Advertisement Pretests
More common to industry research are designs that can best be described as quasi experiments because they do not involve true random assignment of people to experimental conditions. Such studies are quite prevalent and can help save a lot of money. As much as it costs to produce an advertisement, the majority of the expenses typically come from media placement: It can cost more than $300,000 for one prime-time national advertisement. Advertisers, therefore, want some assurance of success before they actually run the advertisement. They employ many methods for pretest advertising assessment. Several print advertisements can be assembled into a portfolio to be shown to members of the target market, known as a portfolio test. When more realistic conditions are desirable, the advertisement can be inserted into a dummy advertising vehicle, such as a magazine. With such tests, participants may not even know which ad is of interest when they look through the fake but realistic magazine. This way, consumers are not prompted to pay special attention to any one ad.
For broadcast ads, production costs add up quickly. Pretesting can help avoid unnecessary expenses here, too. In the early stages, a television commercial exists only as a storyboard—that is, a series of still drawings with the dialogue and special effects indicated beneath each drawing. Storyboards are inexpensive but difficult to visualize. The storyboard stills can be set to background dialogue and sound effects in an anamatic rough, or storyboard anamatic. Adding a layer of complexity, the still animations can be upgraded to photographs in the photomatic rough, or photomatic storyboard. All these tools can be useful in gauging audience reactions before the expense of production. However, anyone who has ever seen these roughs can attest that a good imagination is still necessary to visualize the ad.
Lest we forget, the bottom-line purpose of advertising is to sell. Sales data are the ultimate test. The benchmark test of sales usually is same-store sales. Because any given store chain is adding or closing locations, total sales may be misleading. Instead, it is usual to examine sales only in stores that were operational at the same time during the previous year. The focus on short-term sales, however, can obscure benefits to the long-term image of a brand. Constantly changing advertising messages in pursuit of quick sales is almost always disastrous in the long-term. This is problematic in a market-driven economy where managers and stockholders want instant results.
Technological improvements make sales data more up-to-date and, relevant: If after reading this, you go to Wal-Mart to purchase a box of Sharpie permanent markers, that sale will transfer almost immediately from the cash register to corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Given that Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world, their databases are powerful advertising effectiveness. Although the retailer works closely with the manufacturers to improve sales, these proprietary data are unavailable to the general public or to academic researchers. However, these large-scale databases are the closest those consumer products can come to the instant report card of direct-response advertisements.
When these methods are combined, the resulting research can be extremely powerful. The political consultant Frank Luntz (2007) has become exceptionally successful and has changed the landscape of American politics with his Words That Work. As PBS’s Frontline detailed in the documentary The Persuaders (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/ pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/), Luntz starts with popular culture. “I’ve got a rule, which is cab drivers and antique dealers know more about America than anybody else. And when the cab drivers feel a certain way, I know I need to listen,” Luntz told Frontline. He begins with something similar to a focus group. He talks to members of the target market. He runs terms by them. He finds the terms that they like and dislike. For instance, Luntz and his contemporaries helped the Republican party relabel estate tax as death tax and rebrand global warming as global climate change. “It’s the same tax,” Luntz told Frontline, “but nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die.”
After identifying key concepts, Luntz is ready to run more complex ideas by consumers. While a group of consumers watch someone talk about a political issue—which could as well be a product, the consumers hold a small dial. They turn it one way to indicate that they like the message and another way to indicate their dislike. This quasi-experimental technique allows Luntz to see in real time what parts of the message are accepted. Furthermore, he can look at the results separated by a political party. The parts of the message that achieve bipartisan approval should be the most effective with the general public. Although it is less common, this multistage research strategy should be equally effective at selling consumer products as political ideals. Rather than separate results based on political ideology, the data can be separated based on a market segment or a key demographic or psychographic variable. Every methodology has strengths and weaknesses. Multiple-method research allows researchers to get a better picture of the overall consumer landscape.
Perhaps the greatest difference between academic and applied research is in the realm of theory building. Practitioners need research to tell them what advertising is likely to work. Effectiveness is key. Conversely, the majority of academic researchers want to understand the process. While a practitioner may care about the customers’ attitude toward a particular ad, an academic may care about how consumers form attitudes toward advertisements: How does persuasion function in general, and what are the relevant variables? In an ideal world, these two research avenues would intertwine and inform one another. However, industry research is often hidden behind a veil of proprietary secrecy, lest the competition benefit from the knowledge generated, and academic research remains bound within the ivory tower.
Research is a word that kindles passion in few souls, yet its importance in the advertising industry cannot be overstated. Few campaigns succeed that were not built on a solid body of research. Advertising is, as one textbook (Miller & Muir, 2004) puts it, “the business of brands.” And brands are not real. They are intangible objects that exist in the minds of consumers. Advertising can build on or obfuscate those mental images. To inculcate the desired image, the advertiser must understand the consumer, and that is no easy undertaking. If you pay a consumer to help with research, then that consumer usually will go out of his or her way to be helpful. And this is no help at all. To be of any use, consumers’ mental images must be queried as subtly as possible. Every question you ask suggests an answer, and research that finds only the answer the researcher desires is as bad as no research at all.
Instead, the best advertising research is carefully and cleverly crafted. In an ideal setting, the participant remains altogether unaware of the client or product. We may, for example, spend an hour talking about lunch choices when I care only about store-bought tuna versus a national chain of sandwich shops.
In the modern media age, the consumer is more of a partner than ever. If you carefully tailor an advertisement that resonates, they will reward you for it handsomely. They will write about your advertisements on their blogs, and they will post it to YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. If you miss the mark, however, they will abuse you just as publicly online.
Perhaps most important, effective advertising research is about effective listening. You must ask the right questions in the right ways and listen. The typical consumers have spent a lifetime paying more than they otherwise would to purchase advertised brands. This gives them a stake in those brands and the right to have a voice in the public identity of those brands. If you find the appropriate consumers and the appropriate ways to communicate with them, the results can be powerful. In almost every case, this will begin with effective research.
Given the mysterious and intriguing nature of the modern consumer, advertising research should seem more like a Harry Potter novel than a root canal.