Last year a drumming gorilla sparked a storm in the advertising world. What was the message? How was it relevant? Was this good advertising?
The work Fallon did for Cadbury was from a creative perspective ingenious, but perhaps more interesting were the attempts to deconstruct the ad. The old adage "it works in practice, but does it work in theory?" could not have been more fitting.
The manner in which advertising professionals give their opinion about creative work is obviously based on some type of reasoning, sometimes subjective and instinctive, sometimes analytical and rational. This, in turn, is based on everything we know or think we know about the mechanisms of advertising.
Fifty years using the wrong model of advertising, a newly published academic article by Heath and Feldwick in International Journal of Market Research provides a perspective that should make every good planner think twice about his or her work.
I shall try to give you the short version of this article here.
First, some conventional wisdom
For advertising to be effective, it must communicate a clear message about the product or service. Success in advertising is measured by message recall, believability and comprehension. The role of creativity and emotional elements is to support the message, either by creating (brand) likability, or by increasing attention. The most effective advertising is achieved with high levels of attention and active viewer involvement.
This perspective is called The Information Processing model (IP), and it represents how most advertisers and mainstream agencies have been working for the last 50 years.
The IP model is not total rubbish, but its importance is limited, and some some cases irrelevant. Most practitioners also intuitively know that behaviour is changed not only by verbal or factual messages, but also by creatively influencing emotions and mediating relationships between consumer and brand. Ironically, successful campaigns built on creativity are often backwards engineered to fit rational strategies. "The gorilla campaign was successful because...". That’s not good, of course.
A history lesson
Ideas and words like attention, recall, proposition, benefits and message dominate the mainstream thinking, terms that are usually taken as absolute truths beyond questioning. But where do these terms come from? Two schools of thought are seen as being the basis for mainstream advertising theory: advertising as salesmanship in print, and advertising as message transmission.
Advertising as salesmanship in print
The 1880s was the beginning of systematic sales processes. A company that sold calculating machines, The National Cash Register Co., invented a four-step formula for selling – get attention, provoke interest, create desire, and then get action by closing the sale ("AIDA"). The need to make face-to-face selling more efficient resulted in “salesmanship in print”, a term that would make Lord & Thomas the biggest agency in the world. Advertising was seen as a substitute for face-to-face selling, and as a rational, information-based process, with no room for humour or eccentricity. What is noteworthy was that all this happened before the concept of "marketing" was seen as an activity distinct from sales (the first university marketing course was taught in 1902).
AIDA was the first of many "hierarchy of effects" models. Other models are Daniel Starch’s (1920) read, understood, remembered, and acted upon and Russell Colley’s (1961) awareness, comprehension, conviction, desire and action. Starch also developed a rating system that measured the attention of newspaper ads. More specifically, it measured the attention of all newspaper readers rather than target group attention. Sole focus on maximising attention at all costs gave rise of creative elements in advertising.
Many different varieties of formulas shows the intuitive appeal and common sense of the hierarchy of effects model, but also the lack of empirical basis for these. There is also a limitation of equating advertising with sales conversion (taking a prospect from non-purchase to purchase): most buying behaviour is about repeat purchase situations. It is therefore misleading to think of people as neatly divided into buyers and non-buyers of a brand. Legend and co-founder of DDB, Bill Bernbach, said: “You can’t sell to a man who isn’t listening”. The idea of using creativity in advertising to get attention was thus conceived from the logic of face-to-face selling, rather than marketing.
Advertising as message transmission
"Advertising is the art of getting a unique selling proposition into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost" said Rosser Reeves of the Bates agency in 1961. The idea of selling proposition was derived from the selling model but instead of a hierarchy of effects model, the focus was on one single object: the proposition. This thought was based on the assumption that “the consumer tends to remember just one thing from an advertisement – one strong claim, or one strong concept”. Reeves believed that the proposition would occupy the consumer’s brain, in order to ultimately influence behaviour.
There was of course no empirical evidence for this claim. Yet, reducing the power of advertising to a simple, verbal, proposition makes it appear rational, replicable, ownable and controllable, despite the fact that a brands are made up of more complex arrays of visuals, sounds, patterns, and non-verbal cues.
The transmission model and concurrent communications theory was academically turned on its head in 1967 when researchers like Paul Watzlawick recognised that communications was a matter of continual social exchange, involving a number of behavioural modes besides words, and that as well as being about content, it was perhaps more importantly about relationships.
Nevertheless, the message transmission model had plenty of support from academia. The most influential model was that of Lavidge and Steiner (1961), who devised a three-stage sequential model based upon contemporary psychological thinking. They proposed that cognition was key to successful advertising, and emotion was a consequence of cognition, ultimately leading to decision-making (“Cognition > Affect > Conation”).
The superiority of cognition was made famous by Petty and Cacioppo's elaboration likelihood model (ELM) in 1986. The ELM proposed two routes for persuasion, one central and one peripheral. Central processing is high-involvement “rational thinking” whereas peripheral processing is automatic, shallow, and based on emotional associations. Peripheral processing is seen as a weaker advertising route than the central route for attitude change and predictive behaviour.
Critics of the information processing model
There has been no shortage of critics to the IP model throughout history. Haskins claimed there was a lack of evidence for recall in 1964. Bill Bernbach said advertising should be considered as “warm, human persuasion”. In the 1960s, the UK account planning movement challenged the model on several key points: the dominance of the verbal proposition, the idea that advertising was solely about sales or conversion, the privileging of rational content-based communication models over the symbolic or emotional mediating of relationships. These arguments were supported by people like Pollitt, Hedges, King and Joyce. Nevertheless, the belief systems in client organisations never shifted away from the IP model, as noted by APGs "How to plan advertising".
Academic attempts to contest the IP model have also failed to change the practices of the advertising industry. Ehrenberg proposed that "advertising is not as powerful as is sometimes thought, nor is there any evidence that it actually works by any strong form of persuasion or manipulation" (1974) and that the role of advertising is to publicise the brand memorably (2002). Ambler developed a model – memory > affect > cognition (MAC), suggesting that cognition can operate as an influence only if affect is in agreement. Heath (2004) presented a "low involvement processing" model, which implied that decisions are made based on emotions, not cognition, and that emotion is processed without the need for active attention to be paid.
Advertising evaluation has historically been dominated by metrics that measure cognitive thinking rather than emotions. Moreover, it is hard to isolate and measure the impact of non-cognitive elements. According to Vakratsas and Ambler, cognitive bias is an important reason for cognition intervening in measurement. Asking about feelings is therefore difficult.
The need for active processing for advertising to work has also been challenged by D’Sousa and Rao (1995), Shapiro (1997) and de Goode (2007). This means advertising is not dependent on high levels of attention and recall.
More recent research from the domain of experimental psychology shows that decision making is driven as much by emotions as by knowledge and reasoning (Damasio, 1999), but also that advertising with high levels of emotion is discriminated against by recall metrics (Heath & Hyder 2005). The power of emotional content and creativity in driving brand choice was tested by Heath (2006). The study showed there was a significant linear relationship between emotional content and brand favourability, but no relationship between rational content and brand favourability.
Why is it so hard to change our thinking?
It is impossible to say why the IP model has endured. Maybe it is because our organisational cultures are based on positivist principles of order, control and rationality, favouring argument, analysis, measurement and factual proof, regardless of how well the practice of may be. Obviously, rational cultures are effective in making the right decisions, and efficient in implementing them. The problem occurs when rational cultures deal with creative processes, emotional decisions, or in general with things that explicitly cannot be measured or verbally expressed.
Of course, most practitioners of advertising have incorporated the importance of emotions and of creativity into their mental models. But emotions and creativity become the servants of a process that is fundamentally subject to rational analysis and control (or the illusion of it). Consequently, creativity becomes a spiritual realm measured only by peer approval and creative rewards.
Humans are not rational. The decisions we make are always influenced by and sometimes entirely driven by emotions and feelings (Damasio 1994, 2003). So, we must be willing to abandon the fact that advertising is a rational communication vehicle.
Visuals, sounds, symbols, music, gestures, context, etc. are not aids to recall/attention/engagement but central elements in communication. We must also accept that communications can be effective without having the possibility to measure it, because advertising can operate on a subconscious and implicit level.
Advertising agencies must face the fact that advertising without message, proposition or benefits can be useful. Creative departments will have to abandon their obsession with simple, functional briefs and creating "impact", in favour of creativity that influences emotions and brand relationships.