Arts & Commerce: Reality Bites

Market research companies often promote their ability to “mine” consumers’ experience and uncover key “insights” into their behavior. Many even borrow techniques from other disciplines, from anthropology to psychotherapy, to penetrate still further. The literature is consistent on this point: The deeper the research, the more profound the insights and, presumably, the more tools you have to create breakthrough advertising.

But is this true?

To be sure, it’s important to investigate the emotional nature of advertising. It would be disingenuous to suggest that laundry detergent ads are just about getting clothes clean. But much research goes too deep. Many researchers seem to forget that advertising’s job is not to accurately represent reality. Good ads don’t hold up a mirror to the consumer as he or she eats breakfast, puts on deodorant or enjoys a luxury cruise. They almost always idealize reality, creating a compelling fantasy consumers can associate with the brand.

Consider a hypothetical case: A moderator exposes a storyboard of a luxury car ad to a focus group. It shows a man and woman in evening clothes zooming down a rural road at night. The initial reaction is positive: The photograph is beautiful and romantic. The car looks exciting to drive. The respondents describe it as “sleek” and “elegant.” They respond to the ad’s attempts to link the car’s functional attributes to a fantasy of sexy wealth and casual elegance.

But the moderator then asks them to examine the ad in greater detail. Having described their fantasy, the group begins to question the ad’s “realism.” They would never drive that fast themselves. The car is for people in the country or suburbs. The man and woman are snobs. They probably have a chauffeur anyway.

The moderator is emulating a psychotherapist: He’s uncovered the gap between the fantasy and the reality. But he’s pushed the consumer beyond the gut reaction to a level of analysis advertising can’t sustain. What motivates consumers to buy—beyond rational criteria—are their unconscious (and semi-conscious) fantasies, stimulated by ads. The moderator has taken apart the machinery that makes advertising “work.”

This is not to say research isn’t important. As account planners, we are always advocating greater understanding of consumer experience. But rather than dispel the fantasy, research should help creatives make it as powerful as possible. Wouldn’t it be useful, then, to explore consumer fantasies rather than realities?

The moderator could show the ad, gather reactions and discuss those reactions. This would keep the advertising exposure brief (say, 30-60 seconds) but set no limits on discussion of the group’s feelings about the ad.

Once the group begins to engage with the fantasy, we can explore the nuances and implications of that fantasy. This way, we deal unashamedly with advertising as advertising, not as an attempt to capture the reality of the consumer experience.

By remembering the power of advertising to create compelling fantasies, we can help creatives make ads that forge powerful bonds between brands and consumers.