Landmark research highlights the true power of advertising

by Nigel Hollis | December 02, 2015

I have been in the business of researching brands, media and marketing communication for so long that what I have forgotten dwarfs what I remember. Rereading articles describing research studies conducted over 20 years ago, reminded me of something very important that I had forgotten.

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I have written elsewhere about the power of advertising to enhance the usage experience by focusing people’s attention on the positive aspects of consumption, predisposing people to like the experience (see this post for more on this topic). It is an effect that I believe has largely been forgotten in a world that pits advertising as publicity versus advertising as persuasion.

Gordon Brown called this ‘mechanism enhancement’. Others have described it as framing. For instance, Deighton et al describe two forms of framing in this article from 1994; ‘predictive framing’ which precedes experience (as I described in my post) and ‘diagnostic framing’ which follows the experience. In two out of three categories examined, they found advertising to have a predictive effect on switching, but no diagnostic framing effect was identified. They conclude that usage effects dominate advertising effects once trial has occurred, while noting that the results might be different for newer brands and other categories where advertising might have more confirmatory power, e.g. ‘Yes, that did work as I expected.’

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The study by Deighton et al makes an interesting complement to work also published in 1994 by Andy Farr, then a colleague at Millward Brown. Andy conducted a carefully controlled experiment, varying conditions of ad exposure and product trial and examining the effect on purchase intent. Whereas it is not clear to me from the Deighton study that the identified effects were truly enhancing rather than persuasive, Andy’s work leaves no doubt. The combined influence of ad exposure and trial resulted in the biggest shift in purchase intent. However, what I had forgotten was that ad exposure alone only shifted curiosity in the advertised brand, not purchase intent (which declined marginally).

This confirms something that Millward Brown has long said – even if many would prefer not to hear it – that only rarely does advertising has a strong ‘persuasive’ effect on purchase intent at the time of seeing or hearing an ad. At best, it might evoke a mild curiosity; an intent to check out the advertised brand. Most of the time, however, advertising works by establishing positive associations that come readily to mind when the brand is thought about at a later date. This research reminds us that advertising does not just influence search or shopping, but also has an influence on the usage experience itself.

So what do you think of these findings? Please share your thoughts. 

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