Science in Hand, Industry Groups Probe the Mind’s Eye

Intuitively, marketers and ad executives understand the appeal of advertising goes beyond rational thought. Yet traditional copy-testing methods, such as quizzing consumers in a focus-group setting, suggest people consciously know why they like or dislike an ad.

Still, without research to support the notion that emotion plays a key role in whether an ad connects with consumers, marketers and agencies largely have settled for observing, asking questions and recording answers. But now, an ongoing initiative between two industry groups aims to change that.

The Emotion in Advertising project, a joint venture of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Advertising Research Foundation, is now in its second stage, in which well-known campaigns will be tested for emotional resonance. The group, which includes marketers and agency executives, hopes to share preliminary findings next month and issue a report by September.

This month, eight researchers in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and psychology, including Bruce Hall of Interpublic Group’s Howard, Merrell & Partners, will begin gauging emotional responses to various campaigns in 15 categories, including beer, automotive, credit-cards, technology, packaged-goods and public-service. “We’re selecting campaigns that have proven marketplace success and have endured,” said ARF president Bob Barocci, who is also co-chairman of the committee overseeing the effort, along with McCann-Erickson WorldGroup’s Joe Plummer.

Among the campaigns under consideration are “Priceless” for Mastercard, “Ultimate Driving Machine” for BMW, “Solutions for a Small Planet” for IBM, “All Stars” for Miller Lite, “We Try Harder” for Avis and “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” for the United Negro College Fund, according to Barocci. All the researchers will test the same beer campaign and up to two others in different categories.

Although their methodologies differ, the researchers share an interest in measuring how emotional response relates to ad success. Some are academics, such as University of Florida professor John Morris and Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, whose firm, Olson Zaltman Associates, is seen as a forerunner in the field. Others represent research houses such as Millward Brown, Taylor Nelson Sofres and Hall and Partners.

Hall, a former Quaker Oats research chief, uses a process called AnswerStream, in which consumers are hooked up to an electronic device that measures physiological responses to ads, such as heart rate and pulse.

Hall, who tomorrow will pitch his methodology to a select group of client CEOs and CMOs at his agency’s headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., said a key finding in this field is that “unless consumers feel positive emotional responses to advertising, they will not act on those feelings.”

Still, Barocci and 4A’s evp Mike Donahue said the purpose of emotion-based testing is not to replace its rational cousin, but rather to expand the knowledge base of marketers and agencies. Donahue, who serves on the project committee, said, “The major advertisers are looking at this area and doing research and recognizing that people need to do something.”

Jim Speros, chairman of the Association of National Advertisers and CMO at Ernst & Young, agreed that emotion plays a strong role in advertising, noting, “You don’t buy an $8,000 Rolex simply because you want to tell time.” Still, he questioned how any kind of testing can accurately predict ad success, given a myriad of marketplace variables that can affect a campaign.

That said, he remembered vividly the response to AT&T’s “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign when he was a marketing executive at the company. “Hundreds of thousands” of flashing lights on the company switchboard, he recalled.