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Copy research: fact and fiction.

Copy Research: Fact and Fiction

Systematic advertising research did not evolve until the 1940s for the talking advertising messages known as radio. TV arrived on the scene in the 1950s to galvanize the copy research industry and rapidly accelerate its development. TV quickly became an electric door-to-door salesperson bearing shorthand, audio-visual communications. These messages rapidly became the most important means for manufacturers to entice consumers to their products and, along with the growth of commercials, copy research blossomed into a variable, necessary means of evaluating how well these new sales tools were fulfilling their task of enticement.

Copy research has kept apace with the astounding advances in communications technology that have so rapidly occured since the 1950s. However, the road to respectability has not always been smooth. Frequently, in years past, our industry has endured canards (usually from so-called "creative" people) such as "numbers do not explain human behavior" or "research is a blunt instrument/imperfect ruler that puts creativity into a straightjacket."

These accusations have not been totally without foundation, inasmuch as they will still apply if the wrong research is being used, or if the research is being used improperly by people who have not been professionally trained. Yet, it is to our advantage that criticisms are tendered, because they have kept our industry on its toes, growing and improving.

Those of us old enough to remember fondly recall the term "magic numbers" used to describe research scores as if there were a "right" score that could imbue a commercial with mystical selling powers. Again, this was one of the many misuses or misunderstandings associated with research. Fortunately, today, our thinking is much more sophisticated. Nonetheless, "magic numbers," "blunt instruments," and "imperfect rulers that stifle creativity" are the legendary wrong stuff of misunderstanding that has plagued our industry while it experienced its growing pains.

Today's advertisers and agencies have a very different view. They accept the self-evident truth that few advertisers can afford to gamble on copy that has only the author's stamp of approval. As well-trained professionals, we researchers now make all possible attempts to understand clients' objectives, to develop and set action and performance standards, and to provide data interpretation (i.e., insights and creative guidance) based on a knowledge of clients' products and problems and expertise derived from testing thousands of commercials.

What We Have Learned

A major step in thinking, which evolved from years of copy testing, is that the construction of a commercial is not an "art," subject only to divine inspiration. Rather, it's a craft. While we do not say that there is a "magic formula" for constructing a good commercial, we have learned that there are basic elements that make that complex message system that is represented by a television commercial effective. This is no easy feat, when you consider just how many TV commercials have been scrutinized in the last 30 years. (Our company alone has tested well over 15,000 commercials.) There has been a wealth of learning in this experience.

We have learned effectiveness ingredients on the "what said" side: stress one major idea; have a U.S.P. or pre-emptive or competitive claim; position the product clearly (not ambiguously); and emphasize the consumer end benefit, reward, or solution.

We have learned, moreover, that it's important to relate that message according to a number of key aesthetic and structural principles: keep the brand name up front, reinforce it, and make it meaningful; keep the copy lean and tight; use video to its greatest advantage to demonstrate; keep audio and visual elements mutually supportive; and work towards creating a unified impression or thematic unity. These are hardly great revelations but rather valuable principles distilled from years of experience.

We have also learned how best to employ the many devices now commonly used in commercials to get attention, enhance credibility, and generate involvement. We have learned that jingles and music can make a positive contribution; that celebrities will add value only if they fit the product and promise; that "real people" make good salespeople only when they're personable, confident, and poised; that humor can be real "plus" when it's used with purpose and is compatible with the product that's being made light of; that image and mood elements should be distinctive and function in a manner that creates a unique brand personality; and that life styles and leisure activities portrayed in commercials should connect to the target population segment for that product.

What do all of these principles add up to? A commercial that is "creative" because it's eye-catching, captures attention, generates brand awareness, and establishes appropriate moods. A commercial that is "effective" because it communicates essential sales points and evokes more favorable attitudes towards that brand or service. What we have learned is to equate "creative" and "effective." It's not "creative" if it doesn't sell, and good salesmanship requires training, education, practice, and craft.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall ...

In the early days of the advertising research industry, recall scores were considered to measure virtually all things. Now, however, we have a far better understanding of the limitations of recall measures. Thornton Lockwood, in an address to the Advertising Research Foundation Validation Key Issues Workshop in 1981, cited substantial evidence to demonstrate that persuasion and recall are independent measures that represent totally different advertising values. Drawing on the results of 23 studies, Lockwood reported that little or no correlation exists between recall and persuasion.

In a Journal of Advertising Research article, Larry Gibson of General Mills amassed evidence from 37 sources to assert what recall alone can't do. As a measure of persuasion, recall is not reliable; it's influenced by the program vehicle and many other factors; recall is not the same as perception change; and it's not related to sales. Once again, the documentation provided by the research industry itself has boldly asserted that recall is independent of persuasion. Gibson concluded that persuasion measures have the dominant effect on purchase and relate directly to sales. The record on recall is clear, recall data are inherently weak and the theory on which recall data are based is empirically shaky. We know that the evidence for the validity of recall is -- to be charitable "checkered." This "checkered" validity of recall is in striking contrast to the evidence for the validity of persuasion which is rich and growing.

The other issue which those of us in the business have followed over the last three decades is that of exposure, and, here again, the industry has been very open for self-examination. One document on this subject is Michael Naples' (President, Advertising Research Foundation) book, Effective Frequency, published by the Association of National Advertisers in 1979. He and other contributors review early learning theory from Ebbinghaus (1885) on through more contemporary marketing studies toward the conclusion that "the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that an exposure frequency of at least two within a purchase cycle is an effective level." The bottom line is that the "real world" is multiple exposure, and that ad budgets and media plans are based on the assumption that a commercial cannot produce results with only a single exposure. Therefore, if you're measuring attitude changes among consumers, the measurement technique should be multiple exposure. Recently, an article by Jim Donius in the Journal of Advertising Research addressed itself to this issue, and particularly to the value of a multiple exposure copy testing technique in measuring mood/image advertising because of the "building" effect of this kind of advertising.

The Question of Validity

In contrast, today's thinking highlights the recognition of attitude measures as important indicators of the likely success or failure in sales. Much of the stature and respectability of this approach in the industry has accrued from the demonstration of the relationship between attitude measures and behavior. In general, more academic evidence has been accumulating since the early 1960s when attitude measures were in their first stage of development, and this evidence shows a clear correlation between intentions and behavior. An Advertising Research Foundation bibliography edited by Benjamin Lipstein, entitled Evaluating Advertising, lists 954 articles under the category, "Attitude Change and Persuasion" and close to 40 percent of the articles in that group deal specifically with "Attitude Change Measures."

One key study in which McCollum/Spielman data were tracked in the marketplace has been widely reported by Lewis Winters of Standard Oil of California. The commercials were part of a 1975 mold-breaking campaign in which Chevron sought to ameliorate the oil industry's tarnished image through a whimsical, animated campaign, featuring dinosaurs and other creatures, that pleaded for conservation. In our tests, we found this campaign extremely effective, and this was confirmed in subsequent tracking studies by Communicus -- though tracked over a ten-year period, this is still only a case study.

In 1983, the Journal of Advertising Research published M/S/C's study of validity, the Quadrant Analysis, in which we investigated the degree of correlation between our Clutter/Awareness and Attitude measures and advertisers' reported brand performance in the marketplace. We examined a total of 412 campaigns for 239 products in 16 product categories. In our analysis, we grouped campaigns into four quadrants, defined by how they performed on our two basic measurements. Accordingly, Quadrant 1 represented high scorers on both measures, Quadrant 4 represented low scorers on both measures, and Quadrants 2 and 3 had mixed combinations. This aspect was unique in that both strong and weak campaigns were tracked in terms of market performance.

From this study, we concluded that there was a high-order relationship between M/S/C / AC-T quadrants and market performance. The study conclusively demonstrates that the key to a brand's success in the marketplace is the Attitude Shift measure; Clutter/Awareness is important to a significantly lesser degree (and that's our equivalent of a recall measure). We also concluded that although high brand awareness enhances efficiency, it alone does not guarantee market success, nor signify relevant need-driven communication.

Many other companies have reported on the predictive nature of pretest persuasion data for subsequent inmarketplace performance. Although one may find technical flaws in individual studies, the cumulative weight of the evidence, albeit from different directions, sources, and methodologies, has affirmed the predictive validity of attitude measures and, as such, cannot be ignored.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Measurements

Up to this point, we have been dealing primarily with main measures, namely recall and attitude shift. It should be emphasized, though, that a commercial cannot be evaluated on the basis of summary quantitative measures alone. There is a strong qualitative area where we diagnose and evaluate to get at the meaning behind the numbers. It has now become generally accepted practice to include diagnostic measurements, along with the two types of measurements supporting one another for a full picture of commercial performance. It's a philosophy in which the research is geared to problem-solving and is flexible, adaptable, and customized -- and highly responsive to getting the full picture to satisfy the needs of both the marketing and creative factions.

Diagnostic areas which are typically probed, relating to the product are: depth of communication (primary and secondary sales messages, explicit vs. implicit communication), comprehension of the story line and theme, and interpretations of slogans and key phrases. We look thoroughly at how the product is perceived across a great many monadic and comparative rating scales. We determine the kind of user image that the commercial projects, and what kind of personality and brand character have been established.

With executional ("creative") elements of utmost importance these days, we take a hard look at how the commercial affects at an emotional level (feelings, moods, etc.). We are able to evaluate spokespersons; to determine the extent to which viewers are involved with the people and life styles portrayed in the commercial; and to examine affective reactions to jingles, music, and lyrics.

The other related debate of years past has revolved around whether it is possible to measure "image" and emotional advertising -- an issue that has been put in terms such as the "quantification of feelings." We have learned, now and are able to research, the effect of non-rational, non-functional commercial elements, such as those frequently seen in the advertising for soft drinks, beer, and fragrances. It is possible to measure, through projective "feelings" and other types of questioning, the extent to which consumers become caught up in the life styles and values presented by the advertising. We can measure the degree of personal identification, emulation, and fantasy/wish-fulfillment. Many times, in testing alternative approaches in mood campaigns, such as for soft drinks, test measurements have clearly discriminated between different executions in the same campaign. For example, one commercial may be clearly much more effective on brand recall, communication, and attitude. The diagnostic data will show that the more persuasive commercial had more enthusiasm, functioned much more strongly on a "wish-fulfillment" level, and had a more appealing character (one that many more respondents wanted to meet or become like).

Testing Roughs

Finally, one of the debates that raged hotly throughout the earlier years of advertising research was over the predictive reliability of rough treatments. That debate was laid to rest when Don Kanter revealed results of a major study of over 300 pairs of rough and finished commercials at the 1976 Advertising Research Foundation Conference to conclude that rough treatments were testable and very adequate barometers of the impact of finished commercials.

What is interesting in the "how far we have come" vein, is the extent to which roughs have also come a long way. We can now create a rough treatment for a pretest with a great deal of sophistication. Nowadays, many artwork animatics have real style and stylization. Another effective approach has been the still photo, and there are, beyond that, rough live-action treatments and even combinations of artwork with old aired footage. We have found, through the years, that all kinds of approaches and devices can be tested in rough form, namely celebrities, humor, experimental executions, and mood/image appeals.


This review was an attempt to encapsulate the learning that the copy research industry has accomplished in some 40 years. To be sure, we've come a long way in developing and sharpening our tools, and in becoming an industry of stature with widespread respectability. We do ourselves and the industry a disservice, however, when we don't trust our own expertise, and allow relatively untutored managements to dictate the techniques to be used for copy testing. We must always remember that 40 years of research by a large number of organizations has provided a vast body of information that has been validated in the marketplace. We must always remember to have confidence in that body of information. We have the experience, we have the tools, we have the know-how, and we are constantly working to refine and sharpen them further.
COPYRIGHT 1989 St. John's University, College of Business Administration
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollum, Donald H.; Spielman, Harold M.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Jun 22, 1989
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