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:
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:
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:
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:
THE PERCEPTION — what was seen or heard
THE COGNITION — ideas triggered by the perception
THE EMOTION — feeling states triggered by the cognition
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:
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:
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:
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:
BY DAVID FORBES, PH. D.
The Qualitative Insights Consortium • Lexington, MA • firstname.lastname@example.org
BY JUDITH RETENSKY
The Qualitative Insights Consortium • Lexington, MA • email@example.com