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Measuring Advertising

Some of the hottest debates in the world of advertising are based around evaluating the success or otherwise of an ad.

There is an industry built around measuring advertising effectiveness and a lot of money is spent searching for the holy grail of guaranteed success.

Whether you are advertising a clear out of flat screen TVs or trying to build a multi national brand franchise the question of return on investment arises each time you have to justify the cost of advertising.

Direct response

In the first decade of the twentieth century advertising effectiveness measurement was based on evaluating the impact of direct response newspaper advertising. You put an ad in the paper and measured success by the number of people who called to your store.

This led to a belief that advertising worked on the basis of awareness, interest, desire and action. The AIDA acronym is still in use in marketing today and it relies on generating conscious awareness as its core principle. Awareness can be easily measured when you define it as a purely conscious process.

Conscious awareness is evaluated by measuring recall. Since awareness and recall are the presumed precursors to interest, desire and action it follows, according to this school of thought, that the higher the attention and recall, the more effective the advertising.

Awareness and recall

Based on this belief, methods were devised to measure awareness and recall. The fact that research was involved with its norms and statistical tools gave the process scientific validity. When radio, television and digital came along the existing tools were used to measure their affect.

Much of the appeal of the awareness and recall model of advertising evaluation lies in the fact that the process provides hard data. Organisations feel comfortable with hard data. Share price, last quarter sales, next quarter projections, earnings ratios and return on investment, are the language of the corporate world. Careers and companies rise and fall based on hard data. Soft data tend to make corporate organisations uncomfortable but as people a lot of our decisions are based on soft data involving emotion and intuition.

Add to the mix the fact that major research companies and their clients have invested a lot of time and money in methodologies that primarily measure awareness and recall and you have a potent argument for retaining the status quo. But we need look no further than Einstein to find a reason to apply the brakes.

Emotion and intuition

The great man is reputed to have declared that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. The maxim is a warning to us all when we get caught up seeking comfort in pure numbers rather than taking account of emotion and intuition.

Exploring the history of advertising measurement helps to explain why the original scenario in which the advertising was subject and the research was object sometimes becomes inverted. It seems at times that the research is the subject and that the advertising has become the object.

The greatest danger in adopting this paradigm either consciously or unconsciously is that you start creating advertising designed to perform well on whatever tool your company uses to measure success.

The 1950s saw the birth of the unique selling proposition. Its arrival meant that in addition to being recalled an ad now had to plant a suggestion in the consumer’s brain that triggers an urge to buy the brand. A simple but clever copy line was considered the best vehicle for your USP so measuring the recall of copy lines became part of the equation. The pursuit of the simply expressed USP still causes angst in brainstorming sessions across the land.

Free love, Jean Paul Sartre, John and Yoko, riots in Paris and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations on the college campuses of the USA were hallmarks of the 1960s. The new dispensation drifted into advertising with the growth of qualitative research. Issues of emotion, the unconscious and psychological theory entered the equation but awareness and recall continued to be the main criteria for advertising success.

Creating meaningful relationships

The introduction of a more holistic approach to measuring advertising struggled because the dominant research methodologies focused on measuring rational responses. The situation remains much the same today despite the interventions of people, notably UK based experts Robert Heath, Paul Feldwick and John Howard Spink, who exhort advertisers to stop focusing on how to get attention and to start focusing on creating meaningful relationships with consumers.

Brands that have focused on working to create relationships rather than simply get attention include Bulmers Cider and Barry’s Tea each of which has become an iconic brand seeking more than awareness and recall in its advertising.

We remember ads that touch us emotionally years after they have finished their tour of duty. We forget ads that scream for awareness as soon as they leave the building.

At a time when people are looking increasingly to find meaning and positive emotional values in their lives it makes sense to spend your advertising money touching the chords that generate a deep and positive emotional response rather than engaging in what is often meaningless attention seeking behaviour.

Colm Carey is a psychologist and Managing Director of