Monday, July 17, 2006

Myths and Truths About Advertising Effectiveness – Part 1

Dramatic advertising successes — defined as a huge increase or reversal of a brand's performance due to advertising — do happen, but they are rare. Heavy competition, combined with the challenges of coming up with new, winning creative, make this task difficult (though not impossible) to achieve.

When it comes to advertising, Gerard Tellis, Ph.D., knows what works and what doesn't. For over 20 years, he has studied all aspects of advertising effectiveness as professor of marketing at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and in visiting positions at Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Cambridge. His work has been published in two books, and he has authored numerous articles in the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Research, and Marketing Science.

His most recent book, Effective Advertising: Understanding When, Why, and How Advertising Works (SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2003), is a meta-analysis of 50 years of research in the fields of advertising, marketing, consumer behavior, and psychology. In it, he summarizes the body of scientific evidence to debunk numerous myths about advertising effectiveness and lay out some well-documented findings that experts and novices may not know.


"Where's the Beef?" "Just Do It." "It's the Real Thing." Some advertisements are clearly more memorable than others. But does being memorable mean they are also successful? Following are 10 myths about advertising widely believed by consumers or the public at large. Marketers, according to Tellis, perpetuate these myths when they fall back on their personal experiences or casual observation rather than on research findings.

1. Advertising creates consumer needs. There are more than 30 million iPods in play today. Did advertising create that need, that mass enthusiasm? Certainly, before iPods existed, consumers didn't go around saying, "For heaven's sake, would somebody pleeeease invent a little portable box that plays a ton of music?" They didn't know they needed or wanted portable music until it was available to them. Situations like this push marketers toward the dangerous conclusion that advertising can create a need, when at best it can be used to exploit one already emerging.

2. Advertising's effects persist for decades. Coca-Cola is well-known by nearly all consumers due to its longevity in the market. But is it the advertising that drives Coke's market share or is it simply that some people love the flavor? The former statement leads to the misnomer that some long-surviving brands are still around because they have been heavy and consistent advertisers, which drives a dangerous tendency to conclude that consistent advertising over an extended period of time equates to long-term brand success.

3. Even if advertising doesn't work at first, repetition will ensure ultimate success. The "frequency" part of the reach-and-frequency formula guides how many times consumers need to see a message to fully absorb it. As a result, if an ad doesn't resonate well with an audience, advertisers will sometimes blame lack of sufficient frequency, concluding mistakenly that more frequency will solve the problem.

4. Three exposures are enough for effective advertising. Speaking of frequency, there is a long-held belief that three impressions are optimal for viewing an ad, after which effectiveness of that ad drops off. Tellis attributes this theory to General Electric researcher Herbert Krugman, who theorized that the first ad would draw attention, the second would stimulate interest, and the third would push the consumer to buy. Since then, we've seen examples in which even one exposure was enough, and many others in which the optimal was considerably higher.

5. Firms often use subliminal advertising. Tellis feels the myth may be propagated by a general lack of trust for big business or a lack of consumers' understanding of what subliminal really means. Anyway, this practice may not be legal because the Federal Trade Commission outlawed this form of advertising in 1974.

6. Humor in advertising trivializes the message. Humor in advertising is often weakly related or even unrelated to the brand, leaving some advertising professionals to question whether humor gets in the way of the message. In reality, humorous ads may do several positive things, including relaxing an audience, opening their mind to the message, distracting them from counterarguing, and leaving them in a positive mood. Indiscriminant use of humor, however, may do more to hinder than help the acceptance of the message.

7. Sex sells. Or does it? Ads centered around sex appeal draw attention, but not always positive attention that stimulates the desired perceptions or behaviors.

8. The most effective ads offer strong, logical arguments. This myth centers on the belief that consumers — even loyal ones — make decisions by comparing the performance or characteristics of competing brands, in which the preferred brand's attributes stand out. Sometimes true; often not.

9. Unique creative execution drives results. Constantly pressured to think outside the box, many advertisers (and their agencies) believe that ads must be entirely unique to capture attention. There is no scientific correlation between uniqueness of the message and sales of the product being advertised. Novelty in your message, media, target segment, product, or creative is more likely to foster sales increases than simply increasing ad intensity would. But novelty alone is not a prescription for success.

10. Advertising is very profitable. There is a widely held assumption that, with all the money spent on advertising, it must be very profitable, or companies wouldn't be spending such large sums on it. In reality, the huge levels of spending are more likely a reflection of continuation of past practices than superior ROI.

All about the truths in my next post.

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