Advertising and Skepticism

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rusty - photo copyright 2006 by olivier blanchard

Straight from the mouth of my good friend Rusty Hutchison:

"Word of Mouth means a whole lot more to me than advertising. If the product is really good, people will talk about it. It'll get around. I trust my friends before I'll trust an ad agency. Ads can be cool, but they don't necessarily tell me what I really need to know."

That little comment this afternoon prompted me to dig this up from the archives. It's as relevant today as it was when I wrote it last year:

When you think about the nature of advertising, it's interesting to note that very few people actually seek it out. With the exception of... well, me (and a few others, I hope) most people don't flip through their TV channels to skip regular programming in favor of the latest advertisments. Likewise, most people don't pick up magazines specifically to browse through advertising content either. Most people only are only "accidentally" exposed to advertisers'messsages... several hundred times per day.

Okay, sure, we make exceptions during the superbowl. The ads are as much a part of the experience now as what happens on the field, and that's nice, but it's the exception that confirms the rule. At least for adults. With kids, it's a different story. Mine are captivated by toy ads on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. My kids know how to change the channel, but they don't during "commercial breaks". And that's a point that I'll come back to in a bit.

My point here is that we typically don't seek out advertising. We don't go to it. It comes to us. In the industry, we use the word "exposure". Well, let me tell you about exposure: I don't usually hear people say that they have been exposed to love or excitement or enthusiasm. When people use the word "exposure" it is usually in the same sentence as things like "virus" or "bad language" or "TV violence".

Unless you're a photographer, "exposure" is typically not a positive word. Yet we use it, because it describes the relationship between advertisers and the public fairly well. That tells you a lot about the nature of this business, or at least our perception of it.

As I've said before, advertising seeks you out. It comes to you. More and more magazines now offer more advertising content than... actual content. (Advertising is content now.) Every ten minutes or so, whatever show you're watching on TV takes a break so that advertisers can get get some more face time with you. On your commute to and from work, you're "exposed" to billboard ads. The ads come in on the radio, at the multiplex, at the amusement park, at the store and just about every time you access a website. It follows you everywhere, hence the advent of ad-killing technologies like TiVO, pop-up blockers and satellite radio.

You know how annoying those telemarketers are? You know, the ones who call you every five minutes while you're trying to eat dinner? That's the path that the advertising world is on with its blatant oversaturation. Instead of boring us to death, inspire us. Make us sit up and pay attention. Shorten your campaigns. Be aware that most of you aren't as cool as you think you are. Don't make yourselves a nuisance. Read the warning signs, guys. Your game plan needs to change.

A question you have to ask yourself is this: Assuming that advertising actually affects purchasing habits, can it be argued that more advertising and more repetition will actually translate into more market penetration and more sales? Well, it depends on whether or not you a) have a great product, b) have a captive audience, and c) have the right kind of ad to begin with.

Researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle University, and Washington State University recently examined consumers' responses to advertising. They took into considerations a variety of elements like brand beliefs, responses to informational and emotional appeals, efforts to avoid advertising, attention to ads and reliance on ads versus other information sources. The test group was shown eight TV commercials, half of which were defined as emotional and the other half as informational.

For the sake of clarity Nancy Gardner (who publishded an introductory report on the study's findings) explains that:

"Emotional ads are characterized as providing an emotional experience that is relevant to the use of the brand.

Informational ads predominantly provide clear brand data."

The basic results:

Consumers who considered themselves highly skeptical of all ads were persuaded less by informational ads than they were by emotional ads.

In contrast, non-skeptics were more responsive to informational advertising.

Co-Author and professor of Marketing and International Business at the UW Business School explains that "Skepticism leads to less attention to and reliance on advertising, and generally a decreased chance that the consumer will purchase the advertised product."


He continues: "Highly skeptical consumers have likely become skeptical over time, in response to numerous interactions in the marketplace that have led them to distrust ad claims."

The study further concludes that "skeptical consumers like advertising less, rely on it less, and respond more positively to emotional appeals."

Per Carl Obermiller, professor of Marketing at Seattle University and co-author of the study: "Those who are more skeptical respond to advertising in negative ways - they like it less; they think it is less influential and, they do more to avoid it--zipping past ads on recorded programs and switching channels during commercials."

Furthermore, "Skeptical consumers also are inclined to need to validate the truth of ads by consulting with friends and family members."

MacLaughlan elaborates:

"The advertising skeptic regards advertising as not credible, and therefore, not worth processing. (His) perspective differs from the consumer cynic. A cynical consumer is critical of advertising because of its manipulative intent and indirect appeals. Such consumers may prefer simple, direct, informative advertising. Skeptics, however, do not."

In other words, skeptics can't be sold on a product or brand through the use of informational appeals.

So... it doesn't really matter how many times you play the same ad over and over again. If your ad isn't helping your intended audience to connect with your brand, you are wasting your time... and ours.

Once again, quality (or rather specificity) trumps out quantity.

Unfortunately, the report did not touch on what percentage of the US population might fall under the "skeptical consumer," "non-skeptical consumer" and "cynical consumer categories.

Speaking of quantity and oversaturation, do you know what the average TV ad campaign's life cycle is? 5 weeks. It should be more like 2-3. By week 5, it's probably safe to say that we're more than ready to move on.

But don't take my word for it: Somebody is actually working on a study to validate the arguent. The ongoing test, called Project Wanamaker (in Omaha, Nebraska) has already shown some interesting results. Per Lee Weinblatt, CEO of The PreTesting Company:

"After two weeks of watching commercials, viewers generally become fatigued."

And there you have it, folks.

"The things killing TV commercials are overexposure and poor creative," adds Weinblat. "Give them more interesting commercials." Wayne Friedman, the author of the piece, notes that one advertiser--Subway--kept changing its creative during the test, and experienced less weariness among viewers.

Right. (Note to self: If you aren't going to be effective, at least be entertaining.)

A sad, sad word of caution, however: Erotic and violent images may cloud viewers' ability to focus on the actual object of the ad.

"We observed that people fail to detect visual images that appeared one-fifth of a second after emotional images, whereas they can detect those images with little problem after viewing neutral images," says Vanderbilt University psychologist David Zald.

The effect is known as attentional rubbernecking.

"We think that there is essentially a bottleneck for information processing and if a certain type of stimulus captures attention, it can basically jam up that bottleneck so subsequent information can't get through," says Zald.

In other words, although a provocative or visually loud ad is likely to grab your attention, it also hinders your ability to focus on the brand or product it promotes.

The findings, however, do not seem to take into account the effect of such an ad over time. Through repetition, it is likely that we might become desensitized to the distracting elements of the ad and naturally begin focusing more and more on its actual message. Since the more interesting the ad is, the longer it will continue to attract our attention, no matter how distracting the ad may be, we'll eventually get the point.

(And that is good news.)

So, look... after all of this yapping about this and that, I'm going to make it simple for ye of the advertising world:

1) Know what you want to say.
2) Know whom you want to say it to.
3) Ask yourself why you want to say it. (No, really. That one's more important than you think.)
4) Once that's done and the next question becomes "how do I want to say it," remember to keep it simple, keep it true, and make sure it isn't boring. (At the very least, be courteous enough to make your ads either entertaining or inspiring... or both.)

Remember the thing I mentioned about my kids not changing the channel when commercials come on? That's all you have to do: Make ads for us grownups that won't prompt us to change the channel. Simple, isn't it? If you guys allow us to fall in love with your craft again, maybe you won't need to work so hard to get our attention in the first place.

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