Business Psychology - Latest Findings
Article No. 211
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.
Bad news for a common advertising tactic.
Imagine a print ad for your business, perhaps your all-time favorite. In your mind, put it on a table top, all by itself. Now imagine a couple of dozen other print ads all scattered on the same table, crowding into each other so that some ads attract your eye and others are passed over. Your ad? Does it stand out in this cluttered mess? Are you discouraged?
Business owners experience this disappointment whenever they put their hard work on the line by placing ads in cluttered publications or other advertising mediums. How can you get noticed? How can you get people to think about your ad?
Conventional wisdom has long held that repetition is the key. Repeat an ad often enough and people will notice it: they'll think about it, remember it, form favorable impressions of the business, and patronize it as their needs and desires dictate. The prize of market share goes to the business with the deepest pockets that can repeat ads most often.
In 1988, a serious flaw was discovered in this logic. Experiments demonstrated that repeated exposures to a persuasive ad in a cluttered advertising context failed to improve judgments about the ad or the business. It seemed incredible, but repetition did not produce the desired effect. It did not improve judgments.
Business people ignored these findings, reasoning that the researchers simply didn't repeat the ad often enough in their experiments, and business owners continue to spend vast sums of money repeating their ads.
Other researchers have also been negligent. They failed to follow up these findings to verify them and to understand the thinking processes behind them. Prashant Malaviya, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently decided it was time to set about the task.
Malaviya conceded that repetition of a persuasive ad would provide additional opportunities to think about the ad's message. He called it elaboration, where a person extends the ad's message in unique ways, for example, by picturing himself/herself using the product or patronizing the business. Malaviya wondered if repetition of an ad might have differing effects on this elaboration process depending upon other ads placed in the same publication.
Malaviya investigated two kinds of message elaboration: 1) relational processing, and 2) item-specific processing. With the first, people notice similarities among many ads. With the second, people focus on the information in a single ad. The first helps people form opinions about desirable product features, the second helps them learn of specific brands that can fulfill these desires. Both kinds of elaboration are needed to form purchase intentions.
Malaviya guessed that some aspect of this two-part elaboration process must be disrupted when ads are repeated in a cluttered environment, so he conducted a series of experiments with his students in Chicago to see if he could discover what it was.
Malaviya's experiments replicated the earlier findings, and they also revealed a lack of improvement of judgments with repeated ads. This was not good news for business owners, but after that, the news just got worse.
When the target ad was not repeated, the presence of directly competing ads significantly reduced judgments of the target ad, even though competing firms appeared to be inferior.
When the target ad was repeated, the presence of directly competing ads significantly reduced people's ability to even recognize the business name in the target ad. Competing ads made repetition even more detrimental!
Repeating the target ad affected people's message elaboration process, especially their relational processing. It caused them to increase their elaboration of other ads in the publication, so repeating the target ad helped the other ads in the publication, but not the target ad!
Malaviya did not discover a fix for the problems he discovered, but two conclusions for business owners seem clear: 1) don't place ads in cluttered mediums when ads for directly competing businesses are present, and 2) don't repeat ads more frequently than necessary to maintain recognition of your brand name.
Reference: Malaviya, Prashant, Joan Meyers-Levy, and Brian Sternthal (1999) Ad Repetition in a Cluttered Environment: The Influence of Type of Processing. Psychology and Marketing, 16 (2), 99-118. www.businesspsych.org
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