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A wise old researcher once said a researcher has two jobs: First, to learn something useful that your clients didn’t know before and second, to teach them what you found out. The second job is the harder and also the more important of the two as it is the key in making sure that the research you do makes your clients smarter and gets used.

This is particularly true of advertising research. No form of research is more fraught with barriers to learning. The issues raised by ad testing generate high anxiety for everyone sitting around the conference table with a vested interest in the advertising. Confusion and anxiety do not, as a rule, form an ideal emotional climate for the learning process. Clarity and calmness are required.

But how do we move beyond these limitations and become the teachers our clients need us to be? We must provide our audience with a shared mental model.

To borrow from Peter Senge’s well-known book, The Fifth Discipline, “The effectiveness of a leader is related to the continual improvement of the leader’s mental models.” In other words, the decisions clients make based on advertising research are as much a function of the mental models they have about how advertising works as they are of the information that you provide them.

Don’t think your clients can all agree to use the same menial model? Think again.

A Brief History of Advertising Research

First, let’s remember why our clients all have different mental models. Dating back to the early days of television, the first widely used pre-testing measure was Burke’s Day After Recall Score, which said effective advertising should leave some kind of memory trace in the consumer. Unfortunately, after many years of empirically trying to correlate recall scores with sales results, a number of advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble, concluded that recall was missing something important. So, researchers searched for something else to predict sales. In the ‘70s, pre-testing research shifted its focus to measuring Motivation, such as the Research Systems Corporation’s ARS measure of persuasion.

In the 80s, another pre-testing company, ASI, now IPSOS-ASI, found that recall could be better understood when its two component variables were separated; the attention-getting power of the execution and the linkage between the brand and the commercial.

Meanwhile, other researchers argued that the likeability of the commercial was key – a result empirically confirmed over a decade ago by a famous Advertising Research Foundation validity study.

Most researchers also agreed that communication of a strategic selling proposition was key to effective advertising, a point that continues to sell many focus groups today.

Creatives, who often have different mental models of advertising than researchers, feel that the entertainment value is what matters, that it’s important to be fresh and stand out from the crowd.

What about emotion? Emotion sells. So, on a parallel track, advertising agencies like the Leo Burnett agency developed complex methods of coding and analyzing the verbatims from open-end questions and constructed batteries of diagnostic ratings statements to profile viewer response on multiple dimensions.

And finally a number of researchers believe that pre-testing shouldn’t just be copy-testing. After all, we are attempting to describe the consumer’s viewing experience. These researchers experiment with non-verbal techniques: brain waves, galvanic skin response, voice pitch analysis, and picture sorts.

So, like blind men arguing about elephants, the debate goes on to this day. No wonder clients are confused and creatives are skeptical!

So, “Which of the above measurements is the correct one?” In truth, each theory is right to some degree. From a teaching standpoint, the real problem may be one of synthesis and interpretation, not measurement.

If the goal is to help clients make smarter decisions about their advertising, researchers should ask themselves, “How do I fit these different ways of measuring the advertising experience together into a more complete and intuitive description of advertising?”

We’ll delve into this question in the coming weeks…Stay Tuned!