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In a meeting at a medium-sized baked goods company the advertising agency realized that the newly minted CEO, promoted from the financial side of the business, was operating with a mental model of advertising that you might call the “news program” model. It was quite evident he believed that if you have nothing new to say about a brand, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

The reason to spend money on advertising, he believed, is quite simply to introduce new products or to announce product improvements. Not surprisingly, the ad team invested a great deal of effort in explaining the role that emotion has in strengthening the relationship between a brand that is already established and the consumer.

At a large fast-food restaurant chain which does a great deal of new-product advertising, a product manager and an agency creative director are engaged in a familiar debate—how much screen time in a commercial should be devoted to showing the product? The creative director made the case that the first job of advertising is to attract attention and build new-product awareness, which was the main argument for investing time in attention-getting, non-product visuals. But the client wanted to “light the money!” The new product itself is the attention-getting “news” in the ad, he argued. So they should spend as much time as possible showing the product in order to motivate the consumer to try it.

Balancing act

Both of these stories illustrate the balancing act involved in creating effective advertising. Debate can be framed in a variety of dichotomies: rational argument versus emotional appeal, attention versus persuasion, strategy versus execution. The creative tension generated by these antipodal points of view can sometimes energize breakthrough thinking, but confusion frequently results from the failure to recognize that every piece of human communication is a double helix of information content. To see why, we need to ask ourselves at a deep philosophical level, what exactly “information” is?

In his book Information Theory and Esthetic Perception, the late musicologist Abraham Moles distinguishes between two kinds of information that are present in the universe— semantic and esthetic information. Technically, semantic information is the part of a message that can be translated as you cross over from one channel of communication to another; esthetic information is the part that is lost in translation.

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is wrong. Every picture contains information that cannot be put into words, which is the esthetic information content of the visual. There are no words for the feeling I get when I look now at a picture of my six week-old grandson practicing his first smiles as I push him in a pram through Hyde Park in England on a sunny spring day. To capture and store those wordless feelings is the reason we take pictures.

Science and the self

Individual one-of-a-kind experiences are the stuff of our interior universe. Where were you at 9 o’clock in the morning (EST) on September 11, 2001? Though I’m sure you recall the moment vividly, your answer to the question is totally different from mine—because it’s a personal memory. The public facts of 9/11 have become a part of our history. But your private memories of it will die when you die.

Knowledge of the particular is fundamentally different from the type of knowledge that scientists deal with. Scientific researchers deal with repeatable, generalizable information that can be replicated from one experiment to the next. One-time only experiences are the realm of the artist. Both kinds of information—the general and the particular—can be true, but each represents a different reality. Scientists seek knowledge while artists seek emotional truth.

Semantic information, expressible in word concepts and ideas, is outer directed. It has as its frame of reference the objective world-out-there. Esthetic information, conveying emotion and sensory feelings, is inner directed. Its frame of reference is the subjective “I,” the Self. The first kind of information is collected from observable data; the second from insight. Both kinds of information are important for marketing brands.

The mind of the consumer can be thought of as continuously engaged in the process of defining the self and orienting it with respect to the outside world. A brand’s image is constructed through emotional associations with the consumer’s concept of the self. A brand’s positioning is determined in the context of a universe of competing brands. One of advertising’s jobs is to organically add image associations to a brand like the growth rings of a tree. The other job of advertising is to signal the brand’s global positioning coordinates in order to anchor those images to a fixed place in the mind so that it’s clear what the brand stands for. Volvo, for example, owns the word “safety” in the minds of car buyers. These two different jobs—building an image and positioning a brand—are performed by managing the yin and the yang of the two kinds of information communicated by a piece of advertising.

What is ‘news’?

Another way to think about the information contained in an ad is to think about the concept of “news.” The new and unfamiliar is the opposite of the old and familiar. Frequently, the mission of advertising is to get consumers to take a second look at a brand they think they already know, to put a fresh face on an old acquaintance. Persuasion, which Plato taught us in the Phaedrus, is the process of moving someone by small logical steps from the head nod of an accepted belief—the comfort zone of the familiar—to the edge of a new conclusion. A piece of communication that was made up entirely of new information would be completely incomprehensible. The familiar provides a necessary Rosetta Stone for translating new information into relevant concepts.

Just as in journalism, news in advertising is more than simply information you didn’t know before. To be newsworthy, information must contain an element of surprise. News is “unexpected information.”

Storytelling thrives on surprise. The turning points in a movie occur when characters don’t behave as expected, when new information is introduced that changes the audience’s understanding of what’s going on. When that happens, according to the film-writing guru Robert McKee, a “gap” opens up between expectation and reality, releasing emotional energy that drives a plot forward.

In the Bazaar scene in the film Casablanca, when Ilsa informs Rick that she was already married to Victor Laslo when they were having their love affair in Paris, Rick’s emotions turn from hopeful positive to dark negative. This new information revealed a gap, like the blind spot in a rear-view mirror, between his mental picture of the faithless lover he imagines Ilsa to be and the faithful wife she really is, forcing him to completely re-interpret the wreck of their relationship.

A changed world-view

Surprising information is important because it can change your mental model of the world around you. This is information that we pay attention to, which the unconscious mind instinctively filters, because to do otherwise can be very dangerous. An animal that is not sensitive to the “news” in its environment will not survive long.

News is to semantic information as originality is to esthetic information. This is why creatives strive for originality, for fresh creative executions. Their goal is to communicate the information the client wants, but in a way they didn’t expect. In a sense, the quest of the product manager for news and the quest of the creative director for originality is the same quest, though the information domain each operates in is quite different.

From a communication standpoint, advertising for new products clearly differs in a number of fundamental ways from advertising for established brands. Coming in the critical first stage of the product life cycle, a new product commercial has the job of generating awareness of the product starting from a zero base. It must, therefore, communicate a large amount of new information. It must communicate the brand name; it must communicate the category; it must communicate the attributes of the product and how those attributes are different from other products in the category and what the benefits of those differences are.

By contrast, advertising for established brands has the benefit of prior advertising or marketing history. Usually its job is to remind consumers of the brand and to reinforce existing attitudes and loyalties toward it. Typically, established brand advertising has much less factual information to convey than advertising for new products.

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It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that consumers in general would respond differently to new-product advertising than to established-brand advertising. This assumption has been confirmed empirically by a number of researchers in recent years. As an example, in a famous analysis of a thousand television commercials, academic researchers Stewart and Furse found that recall scores and persuasion scores were highly correlated for new product ads, whereas for established brand commercials the two measures were uncorrelated. (1).

Information processing

Interestingly, such differences not only confirm that the information content of the two kinds of advertising is different, but also suggest that how the mind of the consumer actually processes the information content of new-product ads is different from how it processes the information in established-brand ads. For example, because the rational or semantic content of new product commercials is less familiar, we might expect that the brain has to work harder to process the information.

To explore differences in cognitive processing, Ameritest analyzed a sample of 41 packaged goods television commercials, 23 of which were ads for well-established brands and 18 introductory spots for new products. The Flow of Attention®, which is a Picture Sorts® tool for measuring how audiences cognitively process film, was used to deconstruct audience attention to the different types of information contained in the advertising.

The information content of each ad was determined by frame-by-frame coding the individual pictures used in the picture sorting task. A simple two-way classification scheme was used where the dominant information content of each picture was classified as either P- or E-type. P-type pictures were pictures containing explicit product-related content such as the name, the package, visualizations of product attributes or benefits, and product demos or pictures of the product in use. E-type pictures were basically all other visuals in the execution. The images in E-type pictures can be thought of as representing much of the esthetic content of the video portion of the commercial.

Examples of the information patterns produced by this coding can be seen in Exhibit 1 below.

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Each series of P’s and E’s represents the sequence of pictures taken from one commercial in the order shown, and coded according to our binary categories. As can be seen, the proportion of P- to E-type pictures present in a commercial, and the order in which each type of picture occurs in the flow of commercial images, varies considerably from ad to ad.

When we analyzed our sample of commercials a shown in Exhibit 1, we found that new product commercials contained substantially more P-type information than established brand commercials. Less than half, or 47%, of the visuals in established brand commercials were of the product, or P-type, while 69% of the visuals in new product ads were, a level nearly one-and-a-half times higher. This is consistent with the commonly held perception that new product ads tend to be loaded with rational “information.”

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The types of visual information actually processed by the viewer, as measured by the percentage of pictures recognized in the sorting task, was also different for the two kinds of ads. More product imagery was recalled from new-product ads, 41% versus 29%, while more non-product, executional imagery was processed in established-brand ads, 37% versus 19%.

In the Ameritest Flow of Attention, the average number of images recalled was much less predictive of commercial performance on dimensions such as attention, branding and recall, than the number of peak points (the mountain-tops of the sine-wave type attention curves) of attention. More of these attention peaks were associated with stronger attention-getting power for the ad as a whole, and more peaks containing product imagery were associated with better branding and recall scores.

Our analysis of peak experiences suggests that new-product ads are indeed processed differently than established-brand ads. We see the same number of P-type visuals in the viewer’s peak experiences of both categories of advertising, 17% for new products and 16% for established brands, despite the beginning imbalance of P-type information in favor of new-products ads. This suggests that even for established brands, explicit product imagery plays a role in focusing the consumer’s attention and anchoring the emotional, esthetic imagery in her mind.

However, for established-brand ads, the executional E-type information occurs in peak experiences at a rate three times higher than for new-product ads—a rate much higher than we would expect given the beginning imbalance of information types between the two categories of ads.

Previously published research by Ameritest has shown that it is only the rational, product (P-type) imagery in Flow of Attention peaks that drives day-after-recall scores. To the extent that the product imagery is also relevant and motivating to consumers, this would explain the correlation between persuasion and recall scores found by Stewart and Furse for new-product ads. But for established brands, the emotional imagery is more likely to play a role in driving motivation. (In other research we have shown that emotional engagement can be a strong driver of purchase intent for established brands.) Since emotional (E-type) imagery does not drive day-after-recall scores, this explains why recall and persuasion are uncorrelated for established-brand advertising.

Hierarchy of effects

From a theoretical standpoint, P-type information is the type of information we would expect to produce the cognitive or learning response predicted by the classic “learn-feel-do” hierarchy-of-effects model of how advertising works. This is exactly what happens with viewer processing of new product ads.

On the other hand, E-type imagery (esthetic or emotion-generating) is the type most frequently processed at peak levels by viewers of established brand ads. That is three times the rate of the semantic, P-type information. In terms of a hierarchy of effects, this is the “do-feel-do” model that was developed in the 1980s as an alternative to the original learning model of advertising. Importantly, these findings are consistent with the assumption made by many advertising practitioners that established-brand advertising often works using an emotional rather than a rational mechanism.

However, one of the variables left out of this simple analysis is the question of which of these new or established-brand ads were effective? As a follow-up to this study we analyzed a second group of new-product ads, half of which were determined to be quite strong and the other half quite weak.

Over the past six months, we have tested 20 new-product ads for 10 different restaurants in the QSR category. We measured attention-getting power and motivation for each ad. Using our unique Picture Sorts diagnostic methodology, we conducted a frame-by-frame analysis of how much time was spent showing the new product, including ingredient shots, food prepping shots, bite and smile, etc.

We found that above average new-product ads spent one-third more time showing the product (using the frame counting method) than below average commercials. 56% of the visuals in the 30-second commercials showed the product in the successful ads, while only 42% of the visuals showed the product in unsuccessful ads.

Moreover, the successful ads showed the product more without trading off attention for motivation. In fact, the successful ads were above average in both, while the unsuccessful ads where below average in both.

These are, of course, only average differences and do not provide a formula for developing new-product ads. One of the most successful of the ten strong ads showed the product only 23% of the time while one of the least successful ads actually showed the product 58% of the time. But the strong correlation between the amount of time the new product is shown on screen and commercial performance reminds us that new-product ads form a distinct genre of advertising which must be taken into account when developing new creative work.

More generally, when discussing the content of advertising we are reminded to think more broadly and deeply about the information. Each of our five senses contains information that cannot be translated into the other four senses—smell has a language all its own that is incomparably different from the language of touch, or sound, or sight. The language of advertising film conveys emotional truth to our eyes that our ears cannot completely understand. Pictures are not the same as words. To create effective advertising we need both.

References

Kastenholz, J, Young, C. and Kerr, G., “Does Day After Recall Testing Produce Vanilla Advertising”, Admap, June, 2004, 34–36

Moles, A., Information Theory and Esthetic Perception, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1967

Stewart, D. and Furse, D., Effective Television Advertising: A Study of 1000 TV Commercials, Heath Books, 1986

Young, C., “Tags are It: Four Types of Brand Memories”, Quirks, April 2007