UNDER THE RADAR — Meeting the Challenge of Validity in Assessing Advertising Communication and Impact

Typically, good advertising must come in “under the radar” — be persuasive to its viewers in ways that are subtle — conveying messages that are implicit more often than explicit, appealing to emotions as much as or more than to intellect, and affecting motivations that are deep, rather than superficial.

On average, people do not like to change. A vast body of research tell us that people like to feel they generally know the things that are important to know, embrace personal preferences that reflect considered judgment and have habits and practices that provide reasonable solutions to the challenges of their lives. Our perceptions and opinions about the world provide stability and predictability in our experiences, and we are understandably reluctant to make changes in these viewpoints.

Advertising, at times, seeks to reinforce current perceptions and/or behavior, but more often it seeks to bring about change — to change opinions, change perceptions, change behaviors — in ways that create positive opportunities for the advertiser. The natural human resistance to change makes this task a hard one to accomplish. Typically, good advertising must come in “under the radar” — be persuasive to its viewers in ways that are subtle conveying messages that are implicit more often than explicit, appealing to emotions as much as or more than to intellect, and affecting motivations that are deep, rather than superficial.

In this article, we will deal with one particular type of research where these psychological facts about advertising are important to bear in mind the — “communication check.”

Advertising and Its Implications for the Communication Check

Communication checks typically take place when advertising professionals have reached a fairly specific vision about the tactics that an actual ad (or campaign of ads) will use. Copy has been written, and ideas about images have been conceived. The “check” is used to gain a preliminary look at how the ad will actually “work” — what messages it will convey and how those messages will be received.

Often, the communication check is viewed as a very straightforward, simple research exercise of showing respondents stimuli and asking them about their reactions. However, the communication check can be quickly recognized as a much more challenging and less straightforward research exercise if we think about the psychological circumstances surrounding how advertising works. Remember that people don’t like to change. Recognize that this means that people have a strong desire to present themselves to those around them as unchanging. How often have we heard respondents say, "I am not influenced by advertising"?

The implications for a simple communication check become clear:

  • Respondents will most often be unwilling — or unable — to give accurate reports about their reactions to advertising, in cases where these reactions involve persuasion or attitude change.
    • Respondents’ answers to direct questions about advertising messages are not a good primary focus for research, since the important communications of advertising most often take place below the conscious intellectual level.
  • Respondents’ direct reports about advertising impact are also not a good indicator of real impact, since the kinds of impact good advertising can create are precisely those that respondents won’t want to acknowledge.

How then, given these constraints, should we proceed?

Just as advertising must come in “under the radar” to create attitude change, advertising researchers must come in “under the radar” to assess whether change is created.  Below, we discuss an approach to advertising communication/ impact research to maximize the validity of learning in advertising communication checks, given the true complexity of this undertaking.



The Stimuli Are the Focus

For advertising communication research, one must strive to create stimuli that are as executionally developed as possible. The media really are the message in many respects, and if we place too much demand on the consumer to “imagine” advertising elements, we will be dealing with the wrong parts of their psyche and getting responses that have little to do with potential advertising impact.

Only well-developed  executions  — animatics or “steal-o-matics” — will deliver the underlying strategy  complete  with tonality  and implication, using words,  images and music in a way that can come in “under the radar” of the research respondent just as an actual ad will do. The more our research stimuli work like finished advertising, the more valid our findings about communication and impact will be.

Individual Depth Interviews Are the Method of Choice

Focus groups and individual interviews provide very different contexts for learning, and each of these methods has a good usage in advertising research. However, for communication/impact research, individual depth interviews are the clear method of choice:

  • Using depth interviews allows the researcher to focus continually on a single respondent, exploring the full sequence of one individual’s thoughts and feelings on an issue, without distraction or “contamination” from another viewpoint.
  • Only with in-depth interviews can the researcher get to the deeper thoughts and feelings that are often the “pay dirt” of successful advertising communication.
  • Despite their seeming economies, group discussions of advertising communication will restrain the conversation to the surface, intellectual reactions. Discussion in a group context will also minimize the likelihood of any respondent reporting persuasion or attitude change as a result of advertising exposure.

Focus groups are not the best tool for advertising communication research.  It is individual depth inter- views that can take the researcher to the deeper psychological levels where impact takes place.

Expose Stimuli Just Once to Start

It is often tempting to expose an advertisement more than once at the start of an interview.  This instinct comes from (1) a recognition that consumers will typically see an ad more than  once over the course of a campaign  and (2) a desire to “jump start” learning  about  the incremental impact  of advertising  viewed repeatedly  over time.

If advertisements were nothing more than text, this approach might indeed make sense. Since they are not just text but multiple media, however, a multiple exposure at the start of a research interview will distort the findings:

  • The mind of the consumer who is exposed once to an ad will process the advertising in a way that reflects the balance of impact between all elements (imagery, tonality and text) of the advertising.
  • A repeat exposure of advertising stimuli to “be sure the respondent gets it” will create a very different balance of impact between the elements of the advertising. This will change the path of mental processing and, thus, create a different pattern of impact from the stimulus that will exist in the real world.
  • Reactions to a single advertising exposure will follow paths the respondent might follow when viewing the ad in the real world; multiple exposures at the start of an interview will reduce the validity of communication research.

Be Completely Unaided As Much As Possible

It is very valuable to learn precisely what sort of mental state the respondent is in after exposure to the advertising. The best way to get at this mental state is by getting the respondent to begin talking out loud right away without any new stimulus. Any specific questions from the researcher will potentially be a distracting new stimulus, taking the respondent’s mind off the track it is on after viewing the ad.

The best approach is to literally turn to the respondent who has viewed an advertising stimulus with an expectant facial expression and then let the respondent start talking. Short of this, the request “Talk to me…” should begin the debrief.

It is important to fight the urge to begin the interview from the marketer’s perspective (i.e., by asking the respondent, “What was the main message?”). Rather, look at reactions from the consumer’s perspective by allowing him or her to begin the discussion. The respondent may talk about the advertising message right away, or about a salient image, or about something else entirely — but whatever the content, you can be sure that this is the first level of impact the stimulus had.

Remain unaided as long as there is more feedback coming. When the first totally unaided responses begin to run down, eliciting more with a simple “Anything else?” will often get the respondent to provide an additional level of spontaneous detail. “What else is going through your head right now” is a bit more structured, but it still leaves the field as open as possible for any type of response.

Begin Aided Probing

Remember that the moment the research begins asking specific questions, the respondent’s train of thought will be affected by the questions. Accordingly, once an interview moves to aided probing, it is important to use probes that are as likely as possible to aid the respondent in accurately reconstructing their spontaneous lines of thought.

Follow up the unaided content first. Material that has already been provided by the respondent in the completely unaided portion of the interview is the best place to start for maximum validity. Probes of this unaided material should be constructed to “fill out” the unaided responses in the areas where psychology tells us that valid content will exist:

  • Every psychological reaction to an advertising stimulus has, in principle, three components:

THE PERCEPTION — what was seen or heard

THE COGNITION — ideas triggered by the perception

THE EMOTION — feeling states triggered by the cognition

  • Follow up unaided content using this model:

If the unaided mention is

Follow up with

Something they saw or heard



Something they thought



Something they felt

Cognition: “What did they make you think?”

Emotion: “How did you feel right then?”


Perception: “What did you see or heard that led to that thought?”

Emotion: “How did you feel right then?”


Cognition: “What did you think that made you feel _____?”

Emotion: “What was it in the ad that led to that thought?”

Structure Aided Probes to Reflect the Processing Sequence

It is virtually always necessary to conclude an advertising communication check with some directly aided probes to get feedback from the respondent in areas where no spontaneous feedback has been received (e.g., clients will have interest in reactions to a specific stimulus element — image or line — that may never come up). Again, we recommend following the natural processing sequence in attempting to reconstruct real respondent reactions:

  • Start with perception — “Did you see/hear ­­­­­­­­­­­__________?”
  • Move to cognition — “What did that make you think?”
  • Then move to emotion — “How does that thought make you feel?”

Working in the Real World

While we strongly believe that the above guidelines maximize the validity of learning in advertising communication checks, we also recognize the need to work in the real world, where pressures of schedules and budgets must be acknowledged:

  • Time constraints may require that clients gain early feedback about advertising when it is still in a very rough stage
  • Time and cost constraints may lead clients to elect focus groups as a research method

In the context of these very real, real-world constraints, we offer the following:

Using Rough Stimuli

When the stimulus is in the early stages of development, we need to work to minimize demands on the respondent to imagine, or “make real,” what is being put before them. If it is not possible to have stimuli that  have been developed  at least to animatic  or “steal-o-matic” form, we should still try to protect  ourselves as much as possible from random “imagination effects.”

Showing mood photos to the respondent, tape-recording the audio elements to capture the voices/tone, playing background music of the type likely to be used in the finished ad — all these steps will help to enrich the stimulus, limit idiosyncratic respondent interpretation and make feedback more valid. If stimuli are sufficiently rough that we have concerns about respondents being able to “put it all together,” then exposing the stimuli more than once (while not ideal in principle) may still be preferable to interviewing a confused respondent.

Using Focus Groups

When pressure from time or budget constraints leads clients to select focus groups as the interview method, again we must adapt research principles to suit practice. In this case, it is key that we get as much genuine individual feedback as possible from each respondent and that we minimize the distortions of individual reactions that may be created by talk among group members.

To adjust for this, a written exercise should be completed before the group begins discussion of a stimulus. After the stimulus is presented, participants are asked to record their reactions, starting with an unaided invitation and then touching on all three elements of processing:

  • "Write one or two sentences about what is going on in your head right now — whatever you are thinking  after watching/listening…” PAUSE FOR RESPONDENTS TO WRITE, THEN ASK RESPONDENTS ALSO TO WRITE THEIR ANSWERS TO:
  • “What did you notice as you watched/listened?”
  • “What thoughts went through your mind?”
  • “How did this make you feel?”

This written  exercise can then become the basis for probing  as the group  discusses the stimuli, allowing  each respondent to contribute from his/her own distinctive  personal  viewpoint.



The advertising communication check is potentially a very challenging research endeavor, where natural psychological tendencies for reacting to advertising pose a serious challenge to the validity of research results. There are principles for approaching this task to create maximum validity:

  • Use stimuli that are as executionally developed as possible, with text, imagery and music all doing their role in the complex communication task.
  • Conduct individual, depth interviews whenever possible to allow for full exploration of the deeper levels of reaction where advertising most often does its work.
  • Use completely unaided probing whenever possible, as long as possible.
  • Follow the natural processing sequence whenever probing directly, moving from perceptions to thoughts to feelings, to help respondents reconstruct real responses rather than create fictional ones.
  • When constraints on these principles are unavoidable, continue to work as hard as possible toward a method that preserves the essence of the goals:
  • Require minimal respondent “imagination” work.
  • Seek unaided responses wherever possible.
  • Pursue deeper levels of reaction as the primary focus.



The Qualitative Insights Consortium Lexington, MA dforbes@forbesconsulting.com



The Qualitative Insights Consortium Lexington, MA retensky@verizon.net

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