Give David Cameron a nudge

Advertising works. That’s not the latest pitch from a desperate media owner, it is the inference of a new report, “The Advertising Effect”, from the left-leaning thinktank Compass.

It reaches some potentially hair-raising conclusions – a ban on all advertising in public space, a tax on ads, pro bono work for ad industry staff. It also highlights two major issues that marketers tend to skirt around – how individuals actually operate as consumers and how to measure the effect of marketing.

Recognising that advertising is about driving high margin sales for its practitioners, the report considers how this is achieved, by “creating wants and turning them into needs. Not as a one-off event but as a never ending series of desires. The trick

of the advertiser is to persuade the individual both to stick with their product and wherever possible make us want something new by persuading us that what we currently have is somehow unsatisfactory.”

No surprises there – we all know that “new” and “improved” are keywords in advertising while the steadily increasing number of blades in our razors is evidence enough of the programme at work. But how, exactly, does an ad transform into that series of desires in the mind of the consumer?

Compass is much taken by the Low Attention Processing Model that explains why ads that are not apparently selling anything still drive product uptake. The report’s major concern is how this may run counter to “good society” and be fuelling consumer debt. A similar concept, only applied in reverse by the state to change behaviour, is behind the Nudge theory recently adopted by David Cameron.

At Data Matters, a Market Research Society event held yesterday, Andy Wells, senior lecturer in psychology at the LSE, considered how this psychological model of the customer may be at odds with the informatic perspective that marketing gets through data and analysis.

In other words, leaving aside the politics of how advertising is regulated, marketing needs to be clearer about the model it is basing itself on. Advertising does appear to work at low levels of attentions. Marketing can give little nudges to behaviour, for example by the small rewards of a loyalty scheme. Both change the consumer (and therefore society), so it is time to be more open about that view.

While modelling consumer behaviour is in the interests of both marketers and politicians, there is less interest in doing the hard work of defining what measures should be used to show how that behaviour is changing. One reason why advertising has come up with new consumer models is because it struggles to show what companies actually get for their money.

Marketing is better positioned to track its effectiveness. Indeed, some of the most advanced thinking is being done by data-rich organisations, such as mobile phone networks, to understand the customer and how she behaves. A new generation of agencies is even springing up with this discipline at its core. Whatever your line of business, you need to give your thinking about how to drive and measure sales through marketing a nudge.

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