Ad recall? My ass(umptions)

by greg stene, ph.d.

This is a blog about advertising.

Advertising’s built in part, on persuading people. So, as a matter of self-defense, I naturally reject everything anyone says about it and detest all considerations by everyone.

If you know me (personally as a creative/strategist in the business, or as an assistant professor of advertising), you know that I really think most advertising is poorly considered, lacking in creativity, and the business rationale we use to justify most of it is pure meth – a lot of stupidity that quickly kills your company (and your budget).

But I believe really smart advertising can and does exist, rarely. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the great work and the purely stupid stuff. Here’s something that falls in between those parameters …

A recent study entered the arena of advertising’s considerations of visual attraction and retention. This is a study in fast-forward DVR viewing and it offers some really fertile ground for discussion.

The two most critical findings, to my mind, were that people pay attention to the center of the screen while fast-forwarding, and they can recall ads seen while fast-forwarding.

I would like to point first to the idea of the center of the ad as being the primary location for viewing. Quite intuitive, and actually, if you consider how we approach a written page and Web page, you can find some prior support for this notion.

Take a look at The World’s Greatest Manual on Web Design (my title for it, and seriously given since it’s so damned well considered and theoretically based, particularly the page), and you’ll find some very interesting information about how we “enter” a page.

We treat a new page as tabula rasa, and seek out something that will signal where we should go. We tend to go to graphics (which describes the entirety of the screen for most TV spots), and it would seem natural that we would go to the center of a fully graphic page/screen since there are no contrasting values between the graphics in most TV spots, and explore outward from there. However, in the fast-forward mode, we never really have a chance to explore outward on the screen, so we remain fixed on the center.

Excuse me. Did I just agree with someone’s research findings? I hate myself.

(By the way … I was once told that Akira Kurosawa plotted every opening scene in his epic movie, Ran, so that it would stand as a work of art in itself. If you look at the film, you’ll see this appears to be exactly what happened. In this, you have a point at which you enter the scene – it could be anywhere, but you are always visually directed to that point – and a distinct eye-tracking motion as you work your way through the scene, as you would with any piece of fine art, or well-designed print ad. We don’t see that kind of understanding in the design of TV spots, for some reason.)

But now, let’s look at the issue of What It All Means.

This is a research project that is concerned only with retention (recall, unaided or aided, we’re not sure). We really need to determine whether recall means anything. One of the most striking things I’ve run into in all my years practicing and teaching advertising was the comment by one author in a text I was forced to use one year. This person noted that we use recall as one of the parameters of determining an ad’s “effectiveness,” and also noted that no one could say for sure that recall was actually a factor in effectiveness.

First of all, what is the meaning of “effective?”

Secondly, simply because one can recall an ad, doesn’t mean it has had a positive influence in brand preference. Certainly, there is the facile argument that you can’t choose a product if can’t you remember the ad – but that is so disingenuous in its suggestion that the rest of the world (friends’ recommendations, past experience, competing ads we may remember, etc.) has no greater profound effect on our product choice.

Coming back to that text book for a second, I do not personally like the author, but I must say that I admire her comment that though these issues such as recall cannot be positively claimed as influential, we use them because they’re really all we have available to us to measure. We have no real, unshakable causal relationship, just a parameter we can measure. So we measure it.

While I may very well lock onto the center of the screen while fast-forwarding, and I may remember a logo placed dead-center, it really does not mean, in any way, that there has been a positive brand experience.

Personally, I would like to see TV continue to receive a lot of dollars in ad placement. I like watching good, well-produced shows. As we move to the Web, those BigTime dollars now available for production will go away, and we’ll begin to see cheap, badly produced work.

So, please – let’s all continue to delude ourselves into believing TV advertising works. At least we’ll continue to get some good programming.

Greg Stene has a hard decade in the advertising business as a copywriter/creative and strategist. He’s seen money well-spent, and money wasted. He knows what makes for the difference. He also teaches advertising at Wichita State University, with a total of 10 years or so in university teaching. His research specialty is in creativity. His wife’s an award-winning graphic designer, and as a team, they’re a creative/strategist boutique in traditional and new media.

E-mail Greg here.

6 replies »

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  2. When I was working in advertising (small agency in Macon Georgia) some years ago, I was influenced by three men: Claude C. Hopkins, David Ogilvy and David N. Martin. All three mens’ measure of ad effectiveness was/is, does it sell the product or service? A methodical researcher can get a good idea of that by the use of copy testing.

  3. Hasn’t TV advertising passed the point of diminishing returns in that its frequency, now up to what seems like one commercial every seven minutes, is driving away viewers?

    When I was young, I used to laugh at my parents, who grew up on movies, when they would complain about all the TV commercials. I found a lot of them entertaining at the time.

    Now that I’m older, I think it’s the young, raised on the Web, who don’t stand for TV commercials.

    TV — at least network TV: Its time has passed.