Brands should care more about where their ads appear

Marketers pay less attention to where ads are seen than their customers do, which is making them indifferent to unsuitable environments.

Look at the picture above, and on a scale of 1-10, how happy is the blonde woman in the centre of the picture?

Now look at the image below. On a scale of 1-10, how happy is the blonde woman in the centre of the picture?

These images are adapted from an experiment conducted by the cultural psychologist Takahiko Masuda in 2008. It’s designed to measure how judgements are implicitly influenced by social cues and context.

A few years ago, Ian Murray and I tested this on a sample of people working in marketing and advertising, alongside a representative sample of 2,000 UK adults. We presented respondents with a series of these pictures at random. Each one depicted a central figure expressing different emotions such as happy, sad and angry against background figures with either matching or different facial expressions. The results were fascinating.

We found significant differences in the response between our industry sample and the UK population as a whole. People working in marketing and advertising were 17% less likely to be affected by the variation in emotions of the background figures. However, they were more likely to subsequently claim that they noticed the changing facial expressions of the background figures (93% vs. 79% of UK adults).

People in our industry are more focused on the individual and prone to filter out contextual cues.

The results suggest that at an explicit level (i.e. their answer to whether they noticed the changing facial expressions) our industry sample are a savvy bunch who are fully aware of the importance of social cues and context.

However, they are less affected by this context, even though they realise it’s there. Their emotion ratings show a divergence between their explicit and implicit responses (i.e. from the experiment). At an implicit or behavioural level, people in our industry are more focused on the individual and prone to filter out contextual cues.

The importance of context

Ian Murray and I have long argued that the underlying psychology of people working in marketing is having a profound impact on decision making. It manifests itself subconsciously in a number of ways – in this case, the role of context. There are countless studies proving the importance of placing advertising within a quality environment. At a rational level, the business case for the power of context has been forcefully made – marketers know that context matters. But at an unconscious level, marketers naturally gravitate towards solutions where context or media environment is less relevant.

Marketing is hindered by its individualistic, neoliberal worldviewThe growth of programmatic and the obsession with hypertargeting and personalisation have for many marketers shifted the focus away from where an ad appears, towards buying audience exposures at the lowest possible cost without worrying where that exposure takes place. According to Statista, the global programmatic advertising market is estimated to be worth a staggering $725bn by 2026.

This has been particularly problematic for media that position themselves as a high-quality environment for brands. According to Warc/AA, TV is predicted to see a modest year-on-year growth in ad revenue (0.4%), whereas national news brands are predicted to decline by 2.6%. This is in stark contrast to the predicted growth in search (5.5%) and online display (6.6%). According to eMarketer, TikTok’s ad revenues were predicted to hit $13.2bn in 2023, a 33% year-on-year increase.

Quality environments

It’s clear that the targeting and personalisation opportunities offered by social media and the user-generated video platforms have become highly seductive for marketers. Obsessed with the shiny and new, we have been quick to follow the audience into emerging platforms, without taking a step back and asking if the environment is the right place for brands to flourish.

I’ve also noticed an ongoing narrowing of what context in marketing actually means. There is an increasing tendency to frame context solely as advertising that is matched to relevant content or previous browsing behaviour, whilst ignoring the media environment of the placement.

The problem isn’t just confined to media buying. Whilst I’m a big believer in the importance of creative testing, it’s a multi-million pound industry where context plays no part in the methodologies used by the majority of ad testing companies.

We found that premium media such as TV, cinema and news brands drove the strongest ‘fitness’ and ‘social signals’ for brands.

Those who have read my previous columns will know that through extensive research, Ian Murray and I have proved that the majority of the population are much less individualistic than people working in marketing. As proven by the experiment outlined in this piece, people out there in the real world are much more likely to be impacted by contextual cues at a deep psychological level. To put it quite simply, I believe that ignoring media context is highly damaging and weakens the potential effectiveness of advertising.

This is further reinforced by some recent work we at Burst Your Bubble did for EssenceMediacom UK on quantifying the signalling power of different media environments. We repeated the ‘Signalling Success’ study conducted by Thinkbox back in 2020, but this time we added in additional media channels such as cinema, out-of-home and content creators. We replicated the findings that the perceived cost and scale of an advertising channel enhances brand attributes in the eyes of the consumer.

Quantifying the signalling effects of advertising in different channels, we found that premium media such as TV, cinema and news brands drove the strongest ‘fitness’ and ‘social signals’ for brands – far greater than social media, video sharing platforms and content creators. Despite big changes in consumption, there was also a similar pattern amongst 16- to 34-year-olds. The key point is that the signalling power of traditional media endures (see graphs below).

The marketing landscape continues to develop at a ferocious pace, but the role of the media environment in shaping people’s response to advertising is less prone to change. It’s time the marketing industry thinks more holistically and reflects this in its decision making.

Andrew Tenzer is co-founder of Burst Your Bubble.