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Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer
What works, What Doesn't, and Why
By Max Sutherland
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2008 Max Sutherland,
All rights reserved.
INFLUENCING PEOPLE: MYTHS AND MECHANISMS
Why do people buy bottled water that is available free from the tap?
Why does advertising work on everybody else but not on us?
Why do advertisers keep repeating an ad that we have already seen?
All these questions reflect the general belief that advertising works by persuading us, yet we don't feel personally that we are at all persuaded by it.
Why is it so difficult for us to introspect on advertising and how it influences us? Because we look for major effects, that's why! Too often, we look for the ability of a single ad to persuade us rather than for more subtle, minor effects. Big and immediate effects of advertising do occur when the advertiser has something new to say. Then it is easy for us to introspect on its effect.
But most effects of advertising fall well short of persuasion. These minor effects are not obvious but they are more characteristic of the way advertising works. To understand advertising we have to understand and measure these effects. When our kids are growing up we don't notice their physical growth each day but from time to time we become aware that they have grown. Determining how much a child has grown in the last 24 hours is like evaluating the effect of being exposed to a single commercial. In both cases, the changes are too small for us to notice. But even small effects of advertising can influence which brand we choose, especially when all other factors are equal and when alternative brands are much the same.
Weighing the alternatives: evaluation
It is easiest to understand this with low-involvement buying situations. The situation is like a 'beam balance' in which each brand weighs the same. With one brand on each side, the scale is balanced. However, it takes only a feather added to one side of the balance to tip us in favor of the brand on that side. The brands consumers have to choose from are often very similar. Which one will the buying balance tip towards? When we look for advertising effects we are looking for feathers rather than heavy weights.
The buying of cars, appliances, vacations and other high-priced items are examples of high-involvement decision-making. This high level of involvement contrasts with the low level brought to bear on the purchase of products like shampoo or soft drink or margarine. For most of us, the buying of these smaller items is no big deal. We have better things to do with our time than agonize over which brand to choose every time we buy something.
The fact is that in many low-involvement product categories, the alternative brands are extremely similar and in some cases almost identical. Most consumers don't really care which one they buy and could substitute easily if their brand ceased to exist. It is in these low-involvement categories that the effects of advertising can be greatest and yet hardest to introspect upon.
Even with high-involvement products the beam balance analogy is relevant because very different alternatives can have equal weight. We often have to weigh up complex things like 'average quality at a moderate price' against 'premium quality at a higher price'. Often we find ourselves in a state of indecision between the alternatives. When the choices weigh equally in our mind, whether they be low-involvement products or high-involvement products, it can take just a feather to swing that balance.
With high-involvement decisions we are more concerned about the outcome of the weighing-up process, so we think more about how much weight to give to each feature (quality, size or power). How many extra dollars is it worth paying for a feature? Automotive writers for example can reach very different opinions. The more complex a product's features the more complex this assessment because there are usually both positive and negative perspectives. For example, a compact car is positive in regard to both fuel economy and maneuverability but negative in regard to leg room and comfort.
So which way should we see it? What weight should we give to a particular feature in our minds? When advertising emphasizes points that favor a brand, it doesn't have to persuade us — merely raise our awareness of the positive perspectives. Chances are we will notice confirmatory evidence more easily as a result. When we subsequently read a newspaper or consumer report or talk with friends, research shows that we are prone to interpret such information slightly more favorably. This effect is a long way from heavyweight persuasion. Rather it is a gentle, mental biasing of our subsequent perceptions, and we will see in Chapter 2 how perspective can influence our interpretation. It is not so much persuasion as a shifting of the mental spotlight ... playing the focal beam of attention on one perspective rather than another.
As with the amount by which our kids grow in a day, we are just not aware of the small differences advertising can make. Even though these imperceptibly small changes in time add up to significant effects, individual increments are too small for us to notice. They are just below what is known as the just noticeable difference (JND).
Through the process of repetition these small increments can produce major perceived differences between brands, but we are rarely aware of the process taking place.
The cumulative effects of changes in brand image become starkly noticeable only in rare cases: for instance, when we return home after a long absence and find that an old brand is now seen by people in a different light — that in the intervening period the brand has acquired a different image.
Registering a claim in our minds (e.g. 'Taste the difference' or 'Good to the last drop') does not necessarily mean we believe it. However, it makes us aware that there are claimed differences between brands. This is a proposition (a 'feather', if you will) that, when everything else is equal, may tip the balance of brand selection, even if only to prompt us to find out if it is true.
Repetition increases our familiarity with a claim. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, a feeling of greater likelihood that the claim is true begins to accompany the growing familiarity. This effect of repetition is known as 'the truth effect'.
We tend to think that if something is not true it would somehow be challenged. If it is repeated constantly and not challenged, our minds seem to regard this as prima facie evidence that perhaps it is true. The effect of repetition is to produce small but cumulative increments in this 'truth' inference. It is hardly rational but we don't really think about it. We don't go out of our way to think about it because low involvement, by definition, means we don't care much either way. Such claims are 'feathers'.
In summary, the reasons we are unable to introspect on advertising's effects — especially in low-involvement situations — are:
the effect of each single ad exposure is small;
with repetition, even imperceptibly small effects can build into larger perceived differences between brands;
if something is repeated constantly without challenge, our minds seem to regard this as prima facie evidence that maybe, just maybe, it is true (the 'truth' effect);
often it is no big deal to us which of the alternative brands we choose, anyway.
If you have ever wondered why advertisers seem to persist in repeating the same ad — if you have ever wondered why they think this could possibly influence sane people like us — then here is the answer. Much of advertising creates only marginal differences, but small differences can build into larger differences. Even small differences can tip the balance in favor of the advertised brand. This is especially true of 'image advertising'.
The effect of image advertising is easier to see in relation to high-involvement products, so let us start with a high-involvement example — Volvo cars.
Volvo traditionally focused its image advertising on safety. Through repetition, it built up a strong image of the Volvo as a safe car. Other brands have caught up a lot in recent years but on a scale of 1 to 10 for safety, most people would still rate Volvo higher than almost any other car. Safety is now an integral part of our perception of this brand. (The fact that the car actually delivers on this promise has of course been a very important ingredient in the success of the safety campaign — but that is another story.)
One effect of image advertising, then, is to produce gradual shifts in our perceptions of a brand with regard to a particular attribute — in Volvo's case, safety (in other words, to effect marginal changes in our mental rating of the brand on that attribute). This is often not perceptible after just one exposure because the change, if it occurs, is too small for us to notice.
Now let's take a low-involvement product in the very late stages of its product life cycle — hair spray — and tease out some insights from its history of brand image advertising.
The first brands of hair spray originally fought for market share on the basis of the attribute of 'hair holding'. That is, each brand claimed to hold hair. To the extent that they all claimed the same thing, they were what are called 'me-too' brands.
To break out of this, one brand began to claim that it 'holds hair longer'. Just as Volvo claimed that it was safer, and thereby moved Volvo higher up the perceived safety scale, so this brand of hair spray made people aware that some brands of hair spray might hold hair longer than others. It then attempted to shift perception of itself on this attribute and marginally increase the mental rating consumers would give it on 'length of hold'.
The next brand of hair spray to enter the market, instead of tackling that brand head-on, cleverly avoided doing battle on 'length of hold'. The new brand claimed that it was 'long holding', but also that it 'brushes out easier' — a dual benefit. In doing so it successfully capitalized on the fact that hair sprays that hold longer were harder to brush out (or were until then). Many years later came the attribute of 'flexible hold'.
These examples of image advertising for hair spray and cars illustrate how one effect of advertising is to alter our perceptions of a brand. Advertising can marginally change our image of a brand by leading us to associate it with a particular attribute (like 'longer holding' or 'brushes out easily'), and to associate in our minds that attribute with the brand more than we associate it with any other competitive brand.
Gauging the effects image advertising has on us is made even more complex because these effects may not operate directly on the image of the brand itself. Image advertising may produce small, incremental differences in the image of a brand, as in the case of Volvo — but sometimes it is aimed at changing not so much the image of the brand itself but who we see in our mind's eye as the typical user of that brand.
In advertising for Levis, Revlon, Guess, Louis Vuitton, or Dolce & Gabbana, the focus is often on people who use the brand. What changes is not so much our perception, or image, of the product as our perception of the user-stereotype — the kind of person who typically uses the brand, or the situation in which the brand is typically used.
When these brands are advertised, the focus is very much on image but often with this important, subtle difference. The advertising aims to change not how we see the brand itself — the brand image — but how we see:
the stereotypical user of the brand — the user image;
the stereotypical situation in which the brand is used.
If the user image of a brand resembles us, or the type of person we aspire to be, what happens when we come to buy that product category? The user image acts as a feather on one side of the beam balance. If everything else is equal it can tip the scale (but note, only if everything else is equal).
User, or situational, image changes usually fall short of the kinds of rational, heavyweight reasons that make perfect sense of any choice. But they can nevertheless tilt the balance in favor of one brand. Minor effects such as these constitute much of the impact of advertising. Yet they are usually much more difficult for us as consumers to analyze introspectively, and we tend to discount them because they clearly fall well short of persuasion.
Product image: bottled water
Advertising can marginally change our image not just of a brand but also of a product. When we associate a product in our minds with a desirable attribute, it can influence our behavior. Let's examine the question posed earlier. Why do people purchase so much bottled water when perfectly good water is available almost free from the tap?
The question is, are we in fact drinking bottled water as a substitute for tap water? It may seem that way ... but is it? Certainly that is not the way it started. In the USA particularly, bottled water's success can be traced to its original positioning as a substitute not for water but for cocktails and nonalcoholic soda/soft drinks. The image appeal and usage evolved from there.
Let me explain. In 1977, an American, Bruce Nevin, brought Perrier bottled water to the USA and launched it as a pure and healthier alter native for when you were having a cocktail or some non-alcoholic soda. Consistent with the new emphasis on a healthy lifestyle, it was positioned as an accepted, healthier alternative, especially (though not exclusively) when consumed in social situations. The brand name 'Perrier' helped this social acceptance, giving it an up-market 'designer' connotation con sistent with France's fashion and wine image. In addition, the Perrier launch commercials starred Orson Welles, thereby blending celebrity associations with this product. Its appeal as a healthier substitute was buttressed by purity and celebrity and this worked to make Perrier a huge success. With the media constantly urging us to eat more healthily and drink less alcohol, the brand took off. Perrier bottled water became a socially acceptable alternative to drinking alcohol and drinking soda/soft drinks that were not so healthy. Perrier sold US$20 million of bottled water in its first year in the US and tripled its sales to US$60 million the next year. This ultimately attracted other 'me-too' entrants.
The next major entrant in the USA was Evian, coming seven years later in 1984. Evian did a 'me-too' with pure and healthy while at the same time playing the spotlight of attention on difference in taste. Reportedly, research showed that Americans preferred a still taste to a sparkling taste and Perrier was a sparkling water. So Evian offered a still taste and avoided claiming that it was healthier, but instead cleverly associated the brand with a different aspect of health i.e. active lifestyles and the gymnasium — images associated with young, healthy, toned bodies. Consistent with this active lifestyles image, Evian matched Perrier on celebrity associations by using cool, young celebrities like Madonna (who would drink it on stage).
Such positioning was reinforced even further by Evian being the first to offer a lightweight plastic bottle nationwide. Evian's lighter, unbreakable bottle was easier to carry and more suitable for on-the-go lifestyles than Perrier's signature glass bottle. In other words, Evian not only matched Perrier on purity, health, French name connotation and celebrity endorsement but it also projected a user image appeal of toned, active, good looking bodies. If that was not enough of a feather to tip the balance, then being more convenient to carry meant that it was not only 'cool' but functional. This paid double dividends for Evian; it extended the way bottled water was consumed and broadened the market to 'active lifestyle', socially visible situations.
As new, lower cost entrants like Dusani (from Coca-Cola) and Aquafina (from Pepsi) came in, the usage of bottled water evolved and extended, further becoming somewhat more commodified. Nevertheless the basic heritage of health and purity is intact and bottled water remains better for us than either soda/soft drink or alcohol. As Charles Fishman noted in his article 'Message in a Bottle', '... today, water has come to signify how we think of ourselves. We want to brand ourselves — as Madonna did — even with something as ordinary as a drink of water ... We imagine there is a difference between showing up at the weekly staff meeting with Aquafina, or Fiji, or a small glass bottle of Pellegrino.'
The reason we drink bottled water today is partly self branding and partly self statement about healthier lifestyle choices. Did advertising persuade us to use bottled water instead of tap water? No. Did it persuade us to use bottled water instead of less healthy alcohol and sodas? Perhaps that's closer to the mark, but did anyone feel any persuasion? No. It was not persuasion so much as a series of image influences where virtue, convenience, self branding and self statement were aligned.
Excerpted from Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer by Max Sutherland. Copyright © 2008 Max Sutherland,. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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